Baptism for healing and women as healers: twin trajectories of early Mormon ritual

Besides being general conference, yesterday was the last day for submissions for the Mormon History Association Conference in 2007. Kris and I submitted this proposal on Friday and will be notified as to whether it is accepted by January 15th. As we would like to cover a large body of material, we have asked that we be allotted an extended period for our the presentation — I hope this doesn’t compromise our chances for acceptance.

Baptism for healing and ritual healing by women among the Latter-day Saints share a similar development and history. They are both rooted in the charismatic restorationism of early Mormonism. Both grew to receive official sanction in Nauvoo. Both were intertwined with the Temple; and eventually as the pioneers passed on, both were officially obviated, as though the original sanction were foreign and antithetical to Mormon doctrine. Very little has been written on baptism for healing, and as with ritual healing by Mormon women, it has typically been considered in its own right and not in connection with the other grand rituals, ordinances and doctrines of the Restoration. This study follows the course of these two rituals and contextualizes them so that they are no longer anomalous in Mormon history.

The traditional narrative in Mormon history indicates that ritual healing by women was endorsed by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo and ended with a letter from Joseph Fielding Smith in 1946. There has been little if any analysis of the pre-Nauvoo charismatic healings by Mormon women. Neither have the details in the evolution of the various modes of ritual healing among the sisters been discussed. Predominantly, healing by women has been treated as a loss narrative: something unique that was given, and then taken away. Historical details show, however, that ritual healing by women dates back to Joseph’s boyhood family and that introduction of the Nauvoo temple ordinances resulted in imitative forms of healing rituals that persisted into the latter half of the 20th century. As Joseph’s legacy was obscured by the eventual death of his contemporaries and the evolution (including curtailing) of priesthood doctrines, priesthood hierarchy grew to control the use of spiritual gifts.

The subject of less scholarly attention, Baptism for healing follows a developmental pattern quite similar to that of women’s healing. The early Saints frequently witnessed miraculous healing in conjunction with convert baptisms. The Saints recognized scriptural precedent for healing by immersion and, as with female administration, it grew to be associated with the temple, vacillating within and without its walls. Viewed as a fundamental purpose of early temple theology, baptism for healing lost its champions as those who knew or were close to Joseph passed away. As institutional burdens increased in the temple after the repeal of the Law of Adoption in 1894, the ritual was unceremoniously swept from the lexicon of the faithful. As with this study’s companion ritual, institutional pressures trumped traditional doctrine and charisma.

The significance of this paper lies within the contextualization of studying healing rituals together. To date, there has been no wide-ranging study of Mormon healing practice. Such an approach particularly identifies female ritual healing as a normative practice instead of a unique item of interest. The scope of this paper is broad, covering the period from Joseph childhood to the 1960’s and will depict the course of accommodation and adaptation of attitudes and policies within the LDS community and hierarchy as healing praxis changed. The sources for this study are derived primarily from the LDS Church Archives, BYU, USU and UU Special Collections Libraries, and include many sources not quoted in previous studies of Mormon healing practices. Sources used include Relief Society records, Endowment House and temple records, diaries and correspondence, hospital records, ward ordinance guides, missionary manuals and Relief Society, Priesthood, and General Handbooks.


  1. Well done, it looks great. Best of luck. Keep an eye on things; I didn’t find out I was presenting at MHA until I saw my name in the program book in March.

    You could entitle the talk, “Twin relics of Smithism: baptisms for healing and healing by women.”

  2. Good luck guys — an ambitious topic. You’ll have to keep us posted.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of baptism for healing. Sounds very interesting. Now we know why you’ve been studying all those old RS materials.

    I don’t have anything to do with the MHA leadership, but my guess is that a request for extra time shouldn’t be a problem if you are talking about either taking all or sharing with one other presenter only one of the long slots that is usually divided among three papers. If you are talking about taking two entire time slots, they might reject that just out of sheer logistical concerns.

    I hope to be at 2007 MHA in SLC next May (absent work conflicts), so will look forward to seeing you in the flesh. I’ve now met BCC alumna ECS, Ronan at this year’s MHA, and I just had dinner with Roasted Tomatoes and Serenity Valley, so slowly but surely I’m meeting the entire cast of characters. I hope a lot of folks in the Bloggernacle will make early plans to attend 2007 MHA.

  4. Thanks for the perspective, gents. I once did a baptism for healing post and Splendid Sun, but will probably, in the run up to MHA, post a much expanded version here at BCC.

  5. I think Tom Alexander mentions the waning of baptisms for health in the Salt Lake Temple in his book MORMONISM IN TRANSITION.

  6. Yep. Alexander has a brief discussion. Also, Quinn mentions it briefly in his BYU Studies paper on Re-baptism in Nauvoo and Prince has a short note in his Power from on High. Not much detail or history though.

  7. If even Kevin Barney had never heard of baptism for healing, then there is a large potential audience who will learn something from J. Stapley’s paper.

  8. J. Stapley AND Kris Wright :)

    Thanks though.

  9. If we find out that these things were only discontinued for administrative or logistical reasons, does that mean they might come back?

  10. Tatiana, there was no formal revelation discontinuing either practice. A change in policy could easily bring them back.

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