Addenda: Last rites: Deathbed blessing

I have the habit of creating addendum files for any project that I have worked on. Once an article is published for example, and I stumble across a relevant source document, I drop it in the appropriate file. For some projects, the files are rather large. In rereading some material, I thought that I would put up a couple of posts highlighting material that I think adds to anything previously published.

For this first post, I am sharing a document relating to deathbed blessings. This was a practice that is first documented around the time of the Nauvoo Temple’s utility and is now part of the folk liturgy of the Mormon church. In “Last Rites and the Dynamics of Latter-day Saint Liturgy” I discussed the history of this practice. At the time I published it, I was only aware of two examples of ritual performance before the arrival in the Great Basin.

What follows is an excerpt from Phineas W. Cooks journal describing the events in relation to the death of his seven-month old daughter, Eliza, in Winter Quarters, May 12, 1847:

she was a vary promising child and bid fair to mak an inteligent woman but I am resolved to not reflect any blame on anyone but leave the event with the Lord who is Judge of all about an hour before she died I went down and asked Brigham to come up and administer to her which he did, he dedicated her unto God but gave her up father Morley came in with him I went down to Brigham and asked him for some cloth for a shrowd which he let me have. I also asked him to let me take his carriage to go to the grave which he did and sent Alva Hanks one of his men to drive it (1)

This poignant excerpt is important for a number of reasons. Not only does this account increase the number of pre-Great Basin accounts of which I am aware by a whopping 50%, but it is the only such example (again, of which I am aware) that involves church leadership. While church leaders are regularly documented performing these rituals in Utah, this example, and the way in which it was written, suggests that it the ritual was fairly widely known before that period. There is neither shock, nor surprise, simply the reality of death, and church members’ approach to it. It is also interesting as it is a fairly early usage of “dedication” which generally increases in usage with time.

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  1. Phineas W. Cook, Reminiscences and Journal, Microfilm of holograph, MS 6288, LDS Church History Library.

Comments

  1. Fascinating J.! Is that a reference to Isaac Morley by Cook?

  2. SC Taysom says:

    Excellent

  3. Thanks for sharing, J.

  4. Thanks, all. I also just read through and fixed the grammatical errors (I should really do that before posting.

    Tod, it is a reference to Isaac Morley. It was fairly common practice to call patriarchs (in the ecclesiastical sense as well as the familial sense) “father” during this period. There was actually a few months after the Nauvoo Temple when it was more widespread due to the adoption ritual performance, but BY put that down pretty quickly: “I have a request to make of my family & that is that they (esspecially old people) omit calling me their Father. Call me Brother Brigham.”

  5. Sam MB says:

    Cool.

  6. Interesting J. Do you have any guesses as to how this might have emerged?

  7. Very cool.

  8. I am wondering what he meant by not reflecting blame on anyone. He also says Brigham dedicated her unto God but gave her up. It almost sounds as if he thought Brigham could have kept her alive but didn’t for whatever reason.

  9. Steve, if you mean the practice, I get into that in the article. I can send a copy along if you don’t have access.

    nr[2], could be that dedication wasn’t necessarily viewed to be the finale. For example, Sidney Rigdon dedicated his daughter to God in Nauvoo in a way that healed her. This whole scene highlights the struggle to access the power of God and the negotiation with providence that is so often at play in these rituals.

  10. Does finding this reference change your analysis in any way?

  11. Steve, if it does it is in the particulars of the pre-Great Basin practice. As I mentioned, there were two other accounts of which I was aware, both in early 1846. One was on-the-fly innovation performed by a woman who was administering a healing ritual to another woman. The second was what appears to have been the planned last rites performed by a missionary in NY. Both mention anointing for burial and were performed for adults.

    This account by Cook, which involves BY and Morley, two of the most prominent ritual administrators in the church suggests that it was more widespread than I could confirm before (though I certainly thought it was more common than the limited documentation suggested). As the ritual is performed here, it jibes quite well with the pressures I hypothesize account for the ritual’s persistence in Mormon history. However, the use of “dedication” really is interesting to me, and as I mentioned, regarding the Rigdon antecedent, perhaps isn’t quite the dedications we see later and thus elucidates the evolution of dedicatory language. And as it deals with the death of an infant, perhaps that is why we see that dedication.

  12. Great stuff, J. Thanks for sharing.

  13. I don’t often get to visit here, but I always enjoy what I read when I do. I’ve often been curious about a tradition that exists along the Wasatch Front of “Releasing” someone’s spirit from their body at death. I’ve never been comfortable with this idea for a couple of reasons: 1) it seems to be more like an assisted suicide than a priesthood blessing (the Dr. Kevorkian of Priesthood blessings) 2) It always seemed to me that our call as holders of the priesthood is to heal the sick and raise the dead (outlined in New Testament) not to ‘put them down’. 3) I’ve never seen any manual, scripture or account to support this ordinance of ‘releasing’ a spirit from it’s body.

    I know many people who will tearfully ‘testify’ to this power and will relate their personal experiences with the ordinance. None of them (when questioned) can provide adequate answers when I question where this ritual comes from. The only evidence they can cite is rumor and stories about others doing it.

    I assume that is part of what your dealing with here.

    Very interesting stuff. I’ll have to check out your full article.

  14. Tony, thanks for the comment. The idea that you outline of “releasing” blessings is indeed part of the same liturgical category. It is a folk ritual, and I do treat the history in the article. As BYU Studies has a digital copy up, I haven’t made a free version available. I think it will become free in a year, though.

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