Women and the Laying on of Hands: An Image

Over the past two years or so, I have read many accounts of women administering to those who were sick, weary or pregnant, but have not seen any artistic renderings of women participating in the laying on hands until today.

June_2008_blessing1Jenny Reeder’s fabulous website provides a fascinating look at Augusta Crocheron’s poster entitled, “Representative Women of Deseret.” She provides historical information and context about the poster, as well as the book which bears the same title, and contains biographies of twenty-one prominent 19th Century Mormon women. One of the most unique aspects of the site is the analysis of the poster as a material culture item. Reeder illustrates the importance of writing history from objects and shows how using such items as primary sources provides a broader understanding of the past. Describing both the text and the illustrations, Reeder states:

Crocheron included several religious images in her work. The crown overhead, with the rays of light and the extended hands illustrates how these women considered themselves led by divine sources. Books of scripture and theology are included around many of the women, demonstrating their intelligence and knowledge of their church doctrine.

The image itself is quite wonderful, showing a woman giving a blessing to two people (children?). It appears that one of them is male and almost seems to evoke the idea of a matriarchal blessing as opposed to an administration to the sick. The scripture that wafts above them completes the image.

Have you seen any other artistic interpretations that are similar? What else strikes you about this drawing?

Congratulations to Jenny for such an interesting and innovative project!


  1. When I first saw the image it reminded me of John the Baptist conferring the Aaronic Priesthood on Joseph and Oliver, one hand on each head. Even that is depicted differently nowadays. Wonderfully interesting image.

  2. This must be drawn from her 2008 MHA presentation, which I enjoyed (though I don’t think she understood my question during the Q&A). I can’t think of another example of female ritual administration in Mormon art, but really, I can’t think of any nineteenth-century male examples either.

  3. I’ve never seen any other images of females healing, and if you and J. haven’t, then I’d guess this is a pretty rare indeed. Any insight regarding why that particular verse from the Psalms was used?

    This must be drawn from her 2008 MHA presentation

    I think it might be the other way around (her MHA paper being drawn from her larger analysis of Representative Women of Deseret), though I’m not sure. The website (which is indeed “fabulous”), I would guess, is associated with George Mason University’s cutting-edge Center for History and New Media.

  4. Very interesting drawing. Are there many accounts of women giving simultaneous blessings?

    Fwiw,I found a few references to the drawing (Des News Weekly, WE), but no comments about this particular image.

  5. I can’t think of any. In many ways this picture doesn’t really seem to reflect the reality of most of the recorded female ritual activities that I’ve read. J, does this ring true for you?

  6. I loved this book when I came across it earlier this year and used pieces of it in a women’s history course. What a treasure, and what a terrific little site dedicated to it (Hi Jenny!) – I think the book should be reprinted & mailed to every ward library. For starters.

    Her site’s not part of the CHNM, although that is surely where a lot of web innovation in history is coming from.

  7. In the thousand plus accounts I have read, I don’t remember seeing anything like what is represented in the picture. Really, as Bruce mentions, the only thing that is even close is the conferral of the Aaronic priesthood.

  8. snow white says:

    I would think she could be giving a healing blessing. Though you’re right, it would be more obvious if one of the children were in bed instead of kneeling before her. That position also seems reminiscent of the “patriarchal/father’s/ birthright blessing” described in the scriptures, so maybe it’s supposed to be a mother’s blessing? Though with the psalm a healing blessing seems to make more sense. Either way, cool!

  9. It does remind me a bit of C.C.A. Christensen’s depiction of the conferral of the Aaronic priesthood.

  10. Maybe that image is of a mother who put her hands to their childrens head and pray, or invoking a prayer towards Heaven to bless her kids. But giving a blessing could mean many things and mothers can do bless their kids in many ways,but those blessings that are done using the power and authority of the priesthood and the laying on of hands are powerful blessings and are binding here on earth and there in heaven.

  11. Cynthia says:

    Kenji and Sheila….there are women today, right now as we speak, who are laying hands on heads and conferring blessings through the priesthood power they have been authorized to use. I really think too many people conflate the two words “Priesthood” and “Male”….when it should not be conflated. The Priesthood is separate from any gender; it is God’s power which is given to both men and women, although the usage of it has changed from the past. Joseph Smith gave the power to bless to Eliza R. Snow, Emmeline Wells and other temple workers….this power has been diminished but still exists.

  12. I have no problem with the idea of women giving blessings in the past or in the present, but I am skeptical of this being a visual representation of such. As Kris and J. Stapley mention, the position of the woman and children does not reflect any accounts of blessings that have been given. What it does remind me of, however, is a very common motif in Victorian art and photography; that of children kneeling to pray at their mother’s knee while her hands rest lovingly on their shoulders. Most of those paintings and photos have the mother seated. I would surmise that this artist chose to portray the mother standing nobly in order to the express the courage with which she “lifts her eyes to the hills”. And if she is standing, the only part of her children she can reach to express her connection with them without bending over is their heads.
    My husband’s family has one of these similarly themed old photographs taken of one of his matronly ancestors with her seated with her kneeling children which she sent to her husband while he served a mission overseas. This poster reminds me of that.
    I think it’s an interesting poster and I agree with Rocher’s statement about it which Kris quotes, but I am skeptical about the notion that the artist in this particular instance was drawing a blessing by the laying on of hands.

  13. It’s really a lovely drawing. I’d really like to see the original because I think she may be kneeling, but I can’t tell for sure. I see her feet behind her near the leafy border. Her skirt is swooping to the right and extends behind her and looks to me as if it could be covering her calves. But then if she’s kneeling her proporions are all out of wack.

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