President Monson’s fortuitous handbook

At the last priesthood session of General Conference (April 2007), President Monson spoke about a tender experience during his military service.

During the final phases of World War II, I turned 18 and was ordained an elder—one week before I departed for active duty with the navy. A member of my ward bishopric was at the train station to bid me farewell. Just before train time, he placed in my hand a book which I hold before you tonight. Its title: The Missionary’s Hand Book. I laughed and commented, “I’ll be in the navy—not on a mission.” He answered, “Take it anyway. It may come in handy.”

I bet he would have laughed further had he known that this book was one of the first projects of Gordon B. Hinckley’s Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee of the Church (see reviews for initial chapters here and here) and that he would later spend decades with him in Church service. He further wrote:

During basic training our company commander instructed us concerning how we might best pack our clothing in a large seabag. He then advised, “If you have a hard, rectangular object you can place in the bottom of the bag, your clothes will stay more firm.” I thought, “Where am I going to find a hard, rectangular object?” Suddenly I remembered just the right rectangular object—The Missionary’s Hand Book. And thus it served for 12 weeks at the bottom of that seabag.

The night preceding our Christmas leave, our thoughts were, as always, on home. The barracks were quiet. Suddenly I became aware that my buddy in the adjoining bunk—a member of the Church, Leland Merrill—was moaning in pain. I asked, “What’s the matter, Merrill?”

He replied, “I’m sick. I’m really sick.”

I advised him to go to the base dispensary, but he answered knowingly that such a course would prevent him from being home for Christmas. I then suggested he be quiet so that we didn’t awaken the entire barracks.

The hours lengthened; his groans grew louder. Then, in desperation, he whispered, “Monson, aren’t you an elder?” I acknowledged this to be so, whereupon he pleaded, “Give me a blessing.”

I became very much aware that I had never given a blessing. I had never received such a blessing; I had never witnessed a blessing being given. My prayer to God was a plea for help. The answer came: “Look in the bottom of the seabag.” Thus, at 2:00 a.m. I emptied on the deck the contents of the bag. I then took to the night-light that hard, rectangular object, The Missionary’s Hand Book, and read how one blesses the sick. With about 120 curious sailors looking on, I proceeded with the blessing. Before I could stow my gear, Leland Merrill was sleeping like a child.

During this time, the Church had a policy that members should not write down or disseminate patterns for ordinances. Even Melchizedek Priesthood Handbooks and General Handbooks of Instruction didn’t carry instructions on ordinances. Missionary handbooks are the exception. While The Missionary’s Hand Book was the first general handbook for missionaries, mission presidents had been publishing similar guides for decades. What is especially interesting about the patterns outlined in President Monson’s The Missionary’s Hand Book, is that the form for blessing the sick is one of the last bridges we have to the more complex rituals of the nineteenth century:

A few drops of consecrated oil should be poured upon the head of the sick person. One elder then lays his hands on the person’s head, and may say in substance: Calling the individual by name, -“In the name of Jesus Christ and in the authority of the holy priesthood I lay my hands upon your head and anoint you with this oil which has been dedicated for the blessing of the sick to the end that you may be made whole and restored to health.” To this may be added such words of blessing as the Spirit may dictate.

The missionary is then instructed that two or more elders are to seal the anointing following the same pattern. President Monson didn’t say whether he had oil on hand, and there is a provision in the handbook that if no oil is available a blessing without oil is acceptable.


  1. I find it interesting that President Monson had never received a priesthood blessing before. He was raised in the Salt Lake Valley, and I presume that his family was active. I wonder if his father simply was not accustomed to offering priesthood blessings, or if there was less churchwide emphasis on such blessings when he was a child in the 1920s – 1940s.

  2. A great story. I wonder what happened to Leland Merrill.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    And a timely story, since many of us have been watching the PBS special on WWII and are reflecting on those days.

  4. Jonathan — this raises some interesting questions about the public/private nature of blessing the sick. Two weeks ago, my daughter and her friend found some newborn mice that were abandoned by their parents when we shook out the pool cover. She (read: I) became the caregiver for these mice — feeding them, keeping them warm, etc. When I tried to gently prepare her that they might not make it, she assured me that they would because she and her friend had given them a blessing. When asked what she did, she said that she had put her hands on their heads and said a prayer. Of course, she knew what “to do” (even if it wasn’t exact) because she has seen it many times. It seems notable (from where I stand today) that President Monson would have never seen such a blessing and that he was inspired to find the handbook instead of just laying on hands and saying a fervent prayer.

    I’m wondering — in the many, many accounts that we have read, have we come across this uncertainty of what to do? One of the striking things about these 19th century accounts is that they often do know — even if it means somewhat “unorthodox” actions such as women consecrating the oil, getting bear tallow to substitute for the oil, etc.

  5. Kris, those are excellent questions (and a great story about the mice). Perhaps there is less of a concern about specific forms when it is understood that there are less rules, but I am not certain. I remember vividly the first blessing I gave when I was 18.

  6. Maybe President Monson meant that he had never seen a blessing for the sick given by only one elder. He would never have given a standard blessing for the sick with two or more elders before (where one annoints and the other seals the annointing) but he might have seen that done before or been the recipient of that. Even if he had been the recipient of it he might still feel like he had no idea of how to give a blessing with oil with only one priesthood holder present.

  7. I wonder what happened to the mice. Did any of them make it? I totally give blessings to other species of animals, though probably not in the accepted form.

  8. Why am I thinking that he was raised by a single mother? I’m not sure when his father died, or even if he was active while Thomas was growing up….but it seems like he talks a lot about his mother while growing up but not his dad. That might be why he was so unsure about the details of the blessing? (Plus he was only 17 when he entered the military…)

  9. I found a few references to his father:

    Enlisting in the Navy (“Then they asked us to sign on the dotted line. I turned to my father and said, ‘What should I do, Dad?’ In a voice choked with emotion, he replied, ‘I don’t know anything about the navy.'”)

    As I was growing up, our family, in the springtime and in the fall, would drive to Provo Canyon. We boys were always anxious to get on the fishing stream or into the swimming hole, and we would try to push the car a little faster. In those days, my father drove an old 1928 Oldsmobile, and if he went over 35 miles an hour, my mother would say, “Keep it down! Keep it down!” I would say, “Put the accelerator down, Dad! Put it down!”

    Dad would stay at about thirty-five miles an hour all the way to Provo Canyon, until we would at times come around a bend in the road and run straight into a herd of sheep. We would come to a standstill as hundreds of sheep would file past us, seemingly without a shepherd, a few dogs yapping at their heels as they moved along. Way in the rear we could see the horse—with not a bridle on it, but a halter—and the sheepherder. He was occasionally slouched down in the saddle dozing, as the horse knew which way to go, and the yapping dogs did the work. (Inspiring Experiences that Build Faith, 13)

    Uncle Elias
    (“My own father, a printer, worked long and hard practically every day of his life. I’m certain that on the Sabbath he would have enjoyed just being at home. Rather, he visited elderly family members and brought cheer into their lives.”)

  10. Pres. Monson 18th birthday (August 27, 1945) did indeed occur during the final phases of World War II. Hiroshima was bombed on the morning of August 6 (it was still the 5th in the U.S.) and Nagasaki on August 9. The emperor had announced in a radio address to the Japanese people on August 15 that he had decided to accept the Allies’ surrender terms, and the occupation of the Japanese home islands began on August 28. The formal surrender took place on September 2 aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

    So, if Pres. Monson entered the navy one week after his birthday, he began his service on September 3, the day after the war ended.

  11. I think that there might have been more flexibility about being ordained an Elder before the age of 18 in those days. He could have been ordained at 17, I suppose.

  12. I think he enlisted at 17 (so did my own father in the Navy)but the statement says he didn’t enter “active duty” until after he turned 18 and had been ordained an Elder. Missed that part in my initial read through…sorry.

    I think John is right on in post #6.

  13. While were speculating about what Pres. Monson meant about never having seen a blessing given, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he meant what the plain meaning of the statement seems to say: that he had never seen a priesthood blessing given to the sick. There’s no need to write a back story for Pres. Monson that includes an early life where blessings were given often in situations where he was likely to be. It shouldn’t make us think less of him, or his family, if blessing the sick wasn’t something that happened.

  14. In one talk, he seems to date his enlistment as July 1945.

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