On Sunday, I received a blessing for being the husband of the Primary President. We sat down in our traditional area of the chapel and the family in front of us turned around to inform the president that the members of their family that teach the nine and ten year-olds would not be at church. Nice. My wife then turned to me and asked if I would teach the class, hurrying off to the closet where she keeps the spare lesson manuals.
During the Sacrament meeting, I read through the lesson. Naaman and Elisha. Okay; of all the possible lessons to teach, this was pretty cool. The kids were more interested in how exactly leprosy presents than I expected (lots of ewwwws) and it went smoothly. We didn’t talk about why I like the story so much. You see, Naaman’s dipping seven times in the Jordan became an archetype for Latter-day Saint baptism for health. Baptism for health lasted from Nauvoo to the 1920s and recipients were often dipped seven times.
However, in the “Enrichment Section” of the lesson was something that was even cooler than the baptism for health connection:
4. Tell the children the following story:
President David O. McKay was in Berlin, Germany, in 1952 when he received a message from one of the members of the Church in that mission—a sister whose husband and eldest son had both been killed. She had been driven from her home, and because of exposure and lack of nutrition she finally became paralyzed and had been confined to her bed for five years. She expressed the desire that her two little children—a boy and a girl about ten and twelve years of age—be sent over to meet the President of the Church. This good sister said, “I know if I send my children to shake hands with President McKay, and then they come home and take my hand—if I can hold their little hands in mine I know that I shall get better.”
Arrangements were made for them to take the trip. President McKay said, “When that little girl and boy came along, I went to them and shook their hands, and said, ‘Will you take this handkerchief to your mother with my blessing?’ I later learned that after I had shaken hands with them, they would not shake hands with anyone else, for they did not want to touch anyone with their hands until they got back to their mother.”
The mission president’s wife later reported, “Immediately after the children came home, her feet and toes began to get feeling in them, and this feeling slowly moved up into her legs. And now she gets out of bed alone and seats herself on a chair, and then, with her feet and the chair, works all the way around to the kitchen sink, where she has the children bring her the dishes to wash, and other things, and is very thankful that she is able to help now.” (Adapted from Cherished Experiences from the Writings of President David O. McKay, comp. Clare Middlemiss, rev. ed. , pp. 142–44.)
Did you just see that? A healing handkerchief people! David O. McKay! Rock on.
I didn’t end out sharing the story, but I was a bit surprised to find such an awesome account in the primary manual. From the paper Kris and I wrote on the development of Mormon healing:
Following the biblical precedent of the Apostle Paul (Acts 19:12), members of the Quorum of the Twelve sometimes touched or sent handkerchiefs to people in order to heal them.  Joseph Smith Sr. issued the first extant instruction on such healing as part of Lorenzo Snow’s December 1836 patriarchal blessing, where he declared that Lorenzo would have faith “like that of Peter thy shadow shall restore the sick—the diseased shall send to thee their handkerchiefs and aprons and by thy touch their owners shall be healed.”  Such activities were quite rare compared to other means of healing; however they illustrate the degree to which the early Mormons sought to embody the power of the biblical apostles and modeled their healing practices on New Testament precedents.
82. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, 165; George D. Smith, An Intimate Chronicle, 31; Woodruff, Journal, 1:409. Heber C. Kimball also appears to have healed by passing along other articles of clothing. Mary Ellen Kimball, Diary, undated entry preceding July 5, 1857, microfilm of holograph, LDS Church History Library
83. Joseph Smith Sr., Patriarchal Blessing to Lorenzo Snow, December 15, 1836, MS 1330 1, vol. 1, in Selected Collections, 1:31. That Lorenzo engaged in the practice of healing via handkerchief is attested to in Eliza R. Snow Smith, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Company, 1884), 264–65.
Joseph Smith eventually followed suit, perhaps most famously passing his handkerchief along to Wilford Woodruff who used it for decades. My favorite account of Joseph Smith involves one of my ancestors, John Lowe Butler. The prophet blessed his cloak for healing and for the rest of his life, the family wrapped their sick in it, and they were apparently healed. From his biographer:
In 1945 Bertha M. Butler wrote that the family of John Lowe Butler, Jr., inherited the cloak:
The family would often put it around an afflicted person and through their faith in the blessing of the cape they were made better. The cape became old and somewhat shabby and was finally cut into ten pieces, one piece each for the ten [nine surviving] children of John L. Butler II. My husband John Lowe Butler III received one piece of the cape and I have had it in my possession for nearly 30 years. [49 – this footnote includes some additional awesomeness] 
The first thing that a lot of people think when they hear such things is, “Magic!” Mike Quinn has a picture of the a fragment of the Butler cloak in his Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. And while I agree that there is definitely an influence of a magical world view at play, I also think it is important to consider these events as explicit biblical recapitulation (see here for similar comments).
While neither probably would appreciate the connection, I generally view Mormonism as the true antecedent to Pentacostalism. Some Protestants starting in the late nineteenth-century Divine Healing movement, through Pentacostalism to the present, used (and still use) handkerchiefs to heal the sick.  A quick internet search brings up lots fun stuff.
Beyond the earliest Saints, though, healing via handkerchief (or cane, cloak) generally waned among the Saints. My distant cousins with the cloak fragment appear generally anachronistic. Now, I have heard rumors that President Joseph F. Smith did bless handkerchiefs for people that asked (this is strictly anecdotal – I would love, love, love some documentation for it). I was delighted to see President David O. McKay celebrated in an act of old timey Mormonism within the Primary curriculum.
- William G. Hartley, My Best for the Kingdom: History and Autobiography of John Lowe Butler, a Mormon Frontiersman (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1993), 114, 452 note 49.
- Michael S. Stephens, Who Healeth All Thy Diseases: Health, Healing, and Holiness in the Church of God Reformation Movement (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2008), 70 note 23; Amy Sitar, “Praying for power: Dispositions and discipline in the Azusa Street Revival’s Apostolic Faith,” Poetics 36 (2008): 458; R. Marie Griffith, “Material Devotion: Pentecostal Prayer Cloths,” Material History of American Religion Project Newsletter (Spring 1997), 1-3; Douglas H. Pessoni, With Healing in His Wings: A Complete and Concise Presentation of God’s Healing Gospel, 3rd ed. (British Columbia, Canada: CCB Publishing, 2008), 111.