“Nourished and Healed by Prayer and Other Exercises of Belief”

This morning I was filling out an Obstetrical Pre-Admission Form, in case I decide or need to go to the hospital for the upcoming birth of our fifth child. It contained all the usual questions: next of kin, family doctor, referring midwife, etc. The one that gave me pause was, “Do you wish your religion listed on your chart?” I have only been a patient in the hospital twice before, and traditionally my response has been, “No, this is none of your business!”

However, this time I responded, “Yes” and then listed my denomination. I think that I can attribute the shift to a couple of things, but see it springing primarily from a deeper appreciation and desire for the healing ordinances and power available to Latter-day Saints. It is quite likely, that if I end up in the hospital, I could be the only Mormon there at the time. Those who work in hospitals are no strangers to spiritual ministrations to the sick; in fact, various studies have shown that emotional and religious care is equally important in the healing process of patients. Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson wrote, “I am astonished that my scientific studies have so conclusively shown that our bodies are wired to be nourished and healed by prayer and other exercises of belief”. As I finished up my form, I wondered how familiar those in the Family Birthing Unit of my hospital would be with the gift of laying on of hands to heal the sick. At one point, I might have felt embarrassed or awkward about the possibility of nurses or doctors seeing such a thing.

Such feelings are not unique to me and led to the founding of the Deseret Hospital. Concerned Mormon women advocated for the establishment of a public hospital that would meet the special needs of LDS patients. Although, St. Mark’s (Episcopalian) Hospital was established early in 1872 and Holy Cross (Catholic) Hospital was operating by 1875, Relief Society sisters felt uncomfortable around non-Mormon doctors and staff members who discouraged the Mormon practice of anointing the sick within their hospitals. Eliza R. Snow, spoke out. She said that a hospital was needed and that “there were women in the stakes of Zion whose lives were being sacrificed to this need.” Another woman remarked that, “We realize that the other hospitals are excellent institutions, but we want one where our own Elders can walk freely in and perform the ceremonies of the Church without having the eyes of the curious upon them.”

The Deseret Hospital opened on July 17, 1882 with the dual purpose of caring for the sick and maimed as well as educating midwives and training nurses. Two male physicians were on staff but it was dominated primarily by female doctors, including Ellen B. Ferguson, Ellis R. Shipp, Romania B. Pratt and Martha Hughes Cannon. It functioned under the direction of the Relief Society, with the support of the First Presidency. Eliza R. Snow served as the president of the all female board.*

December_2006_deseret_hospitalGreatly satisfied with the establishment of the hospital, Snow remarked in her diary, how nice it was that the ladies had their own hospital for caring for those who, “when desired, could have the sacred ordinances of anointing with oil and laying on of hands administered without being exposed to the contempt and ridicule of those who ignore them.” Eventually, there would be 30-40 beds, though there were seldom more than sixteen patients at a time. After the birth of her second child there, Hannah Adeline Hatch Savage described the facility as “a poor excuse for a hospital” but testified to the healing that followed her blessing at the hands of Lucy Bigelow Young.

The Deseret Hospital didn’t last long. Financial support was never adequate to pay for the treatment of the many “free” patients who sought care there, and the hospital was forced to close in 1894. There were some acrimonious internal divisions between the doctors and board. Eventually, it was replaced by LDS Hospital in 1905. Sadly, Relief Society sisters were asked to provide its linens, but were offered no role in its management.

Looking at the early records of Mormon hospitals is fascinating. Large containers of consecrated oil were ordered to have on hand. Some received special callings to administer to the sick at hospitals. Hospital protocols had to be established for those who served in such callings. Healing the sick by faith and treating disease through allopathic methods merged in an unique manner. In thinking about the intersection of spirituality and medicine as it applies in my own life, I like to remember these pioneer women and their hospital. It seems they fevently believed that the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise her up.
* Picture: Deseret Hospital Board of Directors. Top row: Ellis Shipp, MD; Bathsheba Smith; Elizabeth Howard; Romania B. Pratt Penrose, MD. Second row: Phebe Woodruff; Mary Isabella Horne; Eliza R. Snow; Zina D. H. Young; Marinda N. Hyde. Bottom row: Jane S. Richards; Emmeline B. Wells. Courtesy the Utah State Historical Society.


  1. This is so simply delightful, Kris. I am reminded of the blessing the Romania Pratt received at the hands of JFS essentially setting her apart as a Doctor. Anthon Lund notes in his journal about having the First Presidency set apart a group of recent graduates of the LDS Nursing program.

  2. herodotus says:

    Unfortunately, the idea that prayer actually makes a demonstrable difference in recovery from illness has taken a hit recently with some well designed studies showing no benefit. I’ll see if I can hunt up the references.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    In several areas I served in as a missionary in Colorado there were hospitals. One of my favorite things to do was to go the hospital, check the file card system for any LDS patients, and visit them and offer blessings. That actually made feel useful and needed, as opposed to some mission activities (*cough*–TRACTING–*cough*). And our visits were almost always very welcome, even though many of the patients hadn’t set foot in a church in years.

  4. herodotus says:

    Found the references. This is the one people like to quote:

    By William S. Harris, Ph.D.; Manohar Gowda, M.D.; Jerry W. Kolb, M.Div.; Christopher P. Strychacz, Ph.D.; James L. Vacek, M.D.; Philip G. Jones, M.S.; Alan Forker, M.D.; James H. O’Keefe, M.D.; Ben D. McCallister, M.D. A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit. Arch Intern Med. 1999 Oct 25;159(19):2273-8.

    It examined about a thousand heart patients and found a positive effect even though the patients didn’t know people were praying for them. It is published in a credible journal. Unfortunately, it is in the minority.

    These following two references are more representative of the literature:

    Masters KS, Spielmans GI, Goodson JT. Are there demonstrable effects of distant intercessory prayer? A meta-analytic review. Ann Behav Med. 2006 Aug;32(1):21-6.
    This is a pretty brutal meta-analysis of the literature. Their conclusion: “There is no scientifically discernable effect for IP (intercessory prayer) as assessed in controlled studies. Given that the IP literature lacks a theoretical or theological base and has failed to produce significant findings in controlled trials, we recommend that further resources not be allocated to this line of research.”

    Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, Lam P, Bethea CF, Carpenter W, Levitsky S, Hill PC, Clem DW Jr, Jain MK, Drumel D, Kopecky SL, Mueller PS, Marek D, Rollins S, Hibberd PL.Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. Am Heart J. 2006 Apr;151(4):934-42.
    This is considered by most to be the best study on the subject to date. Their conclusion: “Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG (coronary artery bypass graft), but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.”

  5. Kevin, that is pretty awesome. I had the opportunity to go to the Hospital for a variety of reasons on my mission in the Philippines, but I would never have thought of that.

    Kris, is LDS Hospital still in anyway associated with our Church today?

  6. herodotus says:

    Eh, not to be misunderstood, I do have a testimony of priesthood blessings. My above posts are mostly meant to give a better idea of the state of the medical literature given the quote from the Harvard cardiologist in the lead post refering to the “scientific evidence.”

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Matt W., no, the Church got out of the hospital owning business some time ago. I believe the hospitals it once owned are now a part of the Intermountain Health Care group.

  8. Chirstian Science Monitor had a good right up of the STEPS study, mixed with the other data out there.

    Personally, I am very grateful for prayer and for blessings. They add value to my life.

  9. herodotus says:

    I hate to be in the position of arguing that prayer has no benefit. Let me make it clear that this is not what I believe. I believe in prayer. I’m just trying point out what is actually in the medical literature.

    I looked at the Christian Science Monitor Article. Unfortunately, it illustrates what is wrong with medical reporting in the lay press. No physician would accept that “The Office of Prayer Research” is an impartial judge of a study’s rigor or results. Particularly when they claim to have identified 400 studies on prayer and most meta-analyses of the medical literature can identify fewer than twenty well-designed studies.

    I’ll stop posting as I don’t want to hijack this thread. And again, I do believe in prayer!

  10. herodotus,

    I agree that that source isn’t so hot on my list, I actually liked the words though of Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University:

    “He would like to see other research into the ties between religion and health to continue, including “less sexy” questions such as, “Do patients who have a chaplain visit before surgery do better after surgery?” Or, “If a doctor takes a ‘spiritual history’ of patients along with their medical history and supports their religious beliefs, will it make a difference in medical outcomes?” Patients, Koenig says, have “tremendous spiritual needs that are not being met in the hospital.”

    I thought that more closely related to the thread of this post, where it would be nice to know they had Elders on hand at my local hospitol if none where otherwise available.

  11. Herodotus,
    You are essentially giving the ultimate “show me a sign” study. While that study shows prayer, isolated as a treatment venue has no double blind benefit over placebo, it does absolutely nothing to whatsoever to diminish its importance in a hospital setting.

    A host of epidemiologic studies are well established in the scientific literature that shows a definitive correlation of religious activity, involvement in a church community, personal prayer, all as factors that decrease length of hospital stays, general lifetime health, longevity, disability, and quality of life. The study you quote is a rather weak piece compared with all this data. Scientists not particularly fond of religion will grouse about what those results mean but they cannot begin to discredit the fact that the correlation exists.

    I was blessed to have gone to Medical School at a Catholic Institution and I have to say the exposure I got to this kind of literature, the emphasis on this kind aspect of wellness has been wonderful. I am saddened that most MDs go through training without even the slightest idea that a spiritual history might be relevant to someone’s care. They break into a sweat when asked by a patient to join them in a prayer, they make cutting comments, and damage their patient relationships generally.

  12. Melissa De Leon Mason says:

    This was so interesting to read. The women of those times never cease to amaze me with their faithful initiative and dedication to the mission of Relief Society. They provide a great model to follow.

  13. Kevin,

    I wish hospital visits were a regular part of missionaries’ days. My father was very ill last spring, and we had a struggle contacting Elders to give my father a blessing (he was transferred to a hospital in another state). When the hospital chaplain finally contacted a physical therapist and a hospital administrator that were LDS, my father and mother both received blessings. The blessing comforted my mother greatly.

  14. LDS Hospital is a major referral hospital owned by IHC, though they are moving the referral hospital to Murray under the title of Intermountain Medical Center, and leaving LDS Hospital as a smaller community hospital.
    What amazed me in coming to Utah was that in the ER of various hospitals, you’ll actually find small bottles of “LDS consecrated oil” on hand in the cupboards and where in Boston I heard “stat page catholic priest to ICU” I now hear “will an LDS elder please call the ER.”
    The scientific data on “the power of prayer” as separated from community, relationships, and patient’s perceptions is terrible, though I wouldn’t let that stop anyone from praying. The much touted negative effect of prayer is likely related to the fact that people’s intensity of belief can reflect their intensity of illness (sicker patients are more prone to declare certainty that they are being prayed for).
    Finally, as far as “Harvard doctors” you ought to know that there are thousands of them spread over 14 or more hospitals, and though some are quite excellent, the institution is vast enough to contain a fair number of publicity-grubbers of dubious credibility.
    Oh, and Kevin, your thoughtful service approach may run afoul of current privacy laws, though this is an evolving and often murky area.

    And God bless the sisters of the Relief Society for their hunger to succor the sick.

  15. Sorry all, didn’t mean to sound like an infomercial for Harvard med school :) but I liked the quote. While it is hard to measure, I would hate to discount the importance of emotional and religious care, especially to people who that would be important to. However, I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on tv.

    smb, I find it very interesting that although LDS Hospital no longer owned by the Church that Utah culture still allows for the storage of consecrated oil — thanks for sharing that.

  16. My father was very ill last spring, and we had a struggle contacting Elders to give my father a blessing (he was transferred to a hospital in another state). When the hospital chaplain finally contacted a physical therapist and a hospital administrator that were LDS, my father and mother both received blessings. The blessing comforted my mother greatly.

    Nowadays it’s pretty straightforward; you can just look up the town where the hospital is located on mormon.org and phone the local bishop. We live near a teaching hospital, with patients coming from a many miles away, and when my husband was bishop we took calls like that all the time.

    We have four wards in town, and the wards rotate yearly having specific responsibility for the hospitals, homeless shelter and prisons. But any local bishop or bishop’s family answering the phone would be able to help.

    I happen to work at the medical center, and so I sometimes get a chance to visit with families, show them the ropes, take them to the cafeteria, etc. One sweet experience was meeting a family of a little boy with a vicious form of cancer. Mom had brought pictures of Christ with children, etc. and had replaced all the artwork hanging in the room with her own gospel-centered touch.

    I agree, that since HIPAA (privacy rules in effect April 2003) it would be nearly impossible for a stranger to find out about patients’ condition or religion. It can even be a challenge to get flowers delivered at some hospitals.

  17. My first child was born in a Catholic hospital, and the forms asked for my religion. I put LDS, not thinking anything of it. After my son was born, a nun came in to visit with me. She asked if she could say a prayer. I think her words were something like, “Do you mind if I offer a prayer? I can make it an LDS one.” It was really sweet and one of the few details I vividly remember of my first hospital experience.

    Anyway, very interesing post, thanks Kris!

  18. Chas Brown says:

    “I agree, that since HIPAA (privacy rules in effect April 2003) it would be nearly impossible for a stranger to find out about patients’ condition or religion”
    This is incorrect
    Religion and being listed as admitted to the hospital are the two things HIPPA allow hospitals to tell the outside world (religion can only be given to clergy).

    My opinion on prayer and blessings in medicine (realizing I attend our branch actively with my family, but am in the middle of the crisis of faith [unbelief], and I did not feel comfortable baptizing/blessing his own son) is agnostic:
    I was a med student at LDS hospital and Primary Children’s hospital (as part of the U of U med school). I saw many blessings take place, but I did not participate in any of them (some of my fellow students did). One thing that has brought my current unbelief was realizing any result after a prayer or blessing can be taken as an answer to the prayer or blessing. It bothered me that if a patient received a blessing and died or lived, each result would be used as an answer to prayer.
    I think prayer or a blessing can calm someone and help their struggle a crisis, but I do not believe it has any effect other than comfort.

  19. Great post Kris! Isn’t this stuff just fascinating!

  20. Chas, my heart goes out to you at a complex time in your life. Negotiating belief within one’s family and community is never easy, no matter how much people from the sidelines seem to believe it ought to be so.

    I would, respectfully, disagree with your implication about blessings though. One way of understanding blessings are that they represent moments of contact with God, however they are ultimately phrased and reported and analyzed by the participants. In this understanding, “each result [was] an answer to prayer,” where at a fundamental level the prayer was that the recipient would not be abandoned by God on the cusp of mortality or in the midst of pain. This to me is more than simply the vaguely psychologized notion of comfort. It is, or can be, a true act of communion.

    NB: I do not personally doubt that miraculous healings can happen, nor do I exclude the possibility that these healings may happen as a result of God’s will. I think that those aspects are less important and less substantive than the central element of these blessings.

    I hereby confess that without this self-referential disclaimer, I would be entirely sidestepping a huge debate in Christian (and Mormon) theology regarding the efficacy of prayer.

  21. S. P. Bailey says:

    Great and interesting post. I have always been vaguely proud of hospitals with Mormon history. In our family’s life beyond Utah, we have wound up using hospitals with other religious affiliations or histories (several Catholic and a Seventh-Day Adventist hospital). Interesting how except for the names, the religious flavor seems to have been almost completely lost from these places. Too bad. Even if churches don’t want the risk or whatever of running hospitals, maybe they could do more to maintain a presence.

  22. Chas Brown says:

    I think I get your gist, but I do not fully understand all that you say. Perhaps it is due to the foreignness of the notions of “(prayers) represent moments of contact with God” and “is, or can be, a true act of communion”. I have tried (I think), but never achieved that closeness/communion or feeling with God in my prayer experience. That perhaps explains my different perception.

  23. Religion and being listed as admitted to the hospital are the two things HIPPA allow hospitals to tell the outside world (religion can only be given to clergy).

    But do missionaries count as “clergy”? Do sister missionaries also count as “clergy”?

    I thought only bishops were “clergy,” but maybe that is a local thing.

  24. When my husband was EQ president he got a card that he was an ordained minister or something to that affect so he could get into the prison, hospital, etc. I’m almost positive the full time male missionaries in our ward do as well, but can’t see how the Sisters could carry the same card, since they aren’t ‘ordained.’ Hmm.

    Also facinated with your explanation, Naismith, of the wards in your city alternating responsibilities for the Prison, hospitals, etc. We had a Transient Bishop at one time that handled a lot of that for our urban area, but more recently our ward has handled all of it, and our ward contains the bulk of the city and it’s related shelters, prisons, and hospitals in it’s boundaries. (Hence the reliance on the EQ pres. for help in administering to all those who were in need.)

  25. Whoops, that was from me, forgot to switch the name field. cje does not have a husband.

  26. Chas,

    What HIPAA prohibits and permits and what the hospital staff thinks it prohibits and permits are sometimes very different concepts.

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