I got the horse right here

Among other things, I’ve been working my way through the recently published volume of the journals of James Henry Martineau.[1] Much to my despair, I recently came across an entry in which he describes anointing and healing his horse. Despair because I am something of a completist when it comes to annotation. Kris and I have a paper forthcoming in the Summer issue of Journal of Mormon History, and it is too late to add the entry to a footnote that lists various nineteenth-century incidents of administering to sick animals.[2]

Our paper follows the development of Mormon healing ritual to 1847 — the time when the Latter-day Saints arrived in the Great Basin. At one point in the paper we highlight the tension between miraculous examples of healing animals or small children on one hand and failed ritual administrations on the other. Joseph Smith repeatedly pointed out that it was the faith of the recipient that determined ritual efficacy; but the healing of individuals or animals that couldn’t exercise faith showed how the faith requirement was somewhat vague. Further, there were individuals that seemed to have miraculous power to heal, even those of weak faith.

Joseph Smith revealed during the first year of the Church that if people didn’t have faith to be healed, they could still be heirs of salvation. He also revealed that there were some that were simply doomed to die. Generally, I think people like the latter of these two revelations. It is Mormon Providence and has, I think, expanded with time from a theodicy of death, to a theodicy of suffering. We are comforted with the idea that God has a purpose in the death or suffering of our beloved — less so with the idea that they (or we) lack faith sufficient to overcome.


  1. Donald G. Godfrey and Rebecca S. Martineau-McCarty, eds., An Uncommon Common Pioneer: The Journals of James Henry Martineau, 1828-1918 (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008). This is a wonderful volume that has proven helpful for several projects that I am working on. When I am finished, I’ll likely post a review at Splendid Sun.
  2. While somewhat rare, there are a number of examples, especially during the trail west. Note, however, that neither Eliza R. Snow nor Mary Fielding healed their oxen.

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  1. Bless you Stapley. And the horse you rode in on.

    What is the earliest account of the Mary Fielding healing story that you have encountered?

  2. Interesting. I can’t wait to see your paper in the MHA Journal. I’d have to say that from what I’ve witnessed, there is still a very strong initial bias in the face of illness towards having the faith to get healed. I would certainly welcome increased emphasis on a theodicy of suffering, but I just haven’t seen it much (“We are comforted with the idea that God has a purpose in the death or suffering of our beloved — less so with the idea that they (or we) lack faith sufficient to overcome”).

  3. Steve, that is an interesting thing. I don’t think I have ever read a formal account of the Mary Fielding story. I think it exists as folklore. The classic treatment of the original (in which Mary asks the brethren to heal the ox), is Lavina Fielding Anderson, “Mary Fielding Smith: Her Ox Goes Marching On,” Dialogue 14 (Winter 1981): 99-100. She lists the various sources.

    Hunter, I think the lived religion of contemporary Mormon healing is a fascinating subject that deserves some ethnographic research.

  4. “something of a completist when it comes to annotation” – heh :)

  5. I remember the student copy editors at the RSC getting a kick out this entry in Martineau’s journal when they were preparing it for publication. I’m looking forward to reading the published version of your paper, and to your review of the Martineau journals.

  6. Velikye Kniaz says:

    Brother J. (Stapley);
    Your paper sounds genuinely fascinating, especially since it is on a topic upon which I have often reflected. I found it interesting that you quoted the Prophet Joseph as having said that some are simply ‘doomed’ to die. I wonder just when and by whom the more delicate/diplomatic term of being ‘appointed unto death’ was coined. Joseph also had some thoughts on the brief life (highly mortality rate) of many of the infants of the Saints, stating that these littles ones were of such a high spiritual caliber they only needed to ‘check-in’ to mortality for a short time and then ‘check-out’. It being assumed that they would complete their physical growth to full stature during the millenium. The late Elder Paul H. Dunn, once observed that when we live in this mortal world we and our bodies are subject to all of it’s laws, including those of physics. Thus it is possible for us to fall victim to a senseless accident, i.e. being hit by a drunk driver while crossing the street. Not every event in our lives is choreographed and pre-destined. We can fall prey to the stupidity of others through no fault of our own.

  7. Velikye, I think we have to be a bit careful with JS’s theodicy regarding infant mortality. When he was going to preach, he noticed that one of the people watching and brought the corpse of their recently deceased child. JS was quite familiar with such mortality in his own family. I’m not sure how much of his comments were revelation and how much was simply trying to make sense of a messed up world:

    “…Why is it that infant innocent Children are taken away from us, esspe-cially those that seem to be most intelligent beings?”

    Answer. “This world is a vary wicked world & it is a proverb that the world grow weaker & wiser, but if it is the case the world grows more wicked & corrupt. In the early ages of the world A richeous man & a man of God & intelligence had a better chance to do good to be received & believed than at the present day. But in these days such a man is much opposed & persecuted by most of the inhabitants of the earth & he has much sorrow to pass through. Hence the Lord takes many away even in infancy that they may escape the envy of man, the sorrows & evils of this present world & they were two pure & to lovly to live on Earth. Therefore if rightly considered we have, instead of morning we have reason to rejoice, as they are deliverd from evil & we shall soon have them again. (Woodruff 2:159)

    Note as well the bit about such children growing up in the Millennium isn’t contemporarily documented and was fairly well disputed by BY (though later adopted and affirmed by JFS).

  8. Rameumptom says:

    I believe the scriptural list of gifts of the Spirit include the gift to heal and gift to be healed.
    So, I’m guessing that another option is that some people just don’t have the knack for either one….

  9. J, My own experience with blessings covers the entire spectrum – from revelatory pronouncement (a few times) to inexplicable healing (a few times) to simple comfort (the vast majority of the times) to practical advice (more than just a few times) to encouragement as suffering is promised to continue to the end of this life (three times I remember most vividly) to ambivalence (once, literally, “God has not decided yet.”).

    I am fascinated by that range – and that my own most powerful experiences all were focused more on mitigating the effects of continued suffering than on physical healing.

  10. I didn’t even get past the title before I started singing. I’m sure the post is great, but I’m off to youtube “Fugue for Tinhorns.”

  11. I suspect that “faith of the recipient” is really a proxy.

    That is, faith is one goal of this existence, along with many others. Since trying to explain this complexity is neither desired nor possible, “faith of the recipient” becomes a very reasonable thing to say.

  12. Natalie says:

    Excellent post. I don’t know much about this topic, but I wonder if people resolved the need for blessings to work through faith by focusing on the faith of the parents or of the animal owners? Does the recipent of the blessing need to be the one exercising the faith?

  13. RE: child mortality, I was told that Joseph Smith taught that those who die in infancy will, in the next life, need to undergo the suffering they would have experienced in this life as part of their growth and progression. Are you aware if that teaching is documented, or is that a random bit of speculative doctrine floating about?

  14. 13: the suffering angle is made up. nothing to support that in Smith.

  15. In addition to the retellings listed by LFA in her 1981 Dialogue article, add:

    “Boyhood Recollections of President Joseph F. Smith as Told by Himself at the Meeting of the Genealogical Society of Utah Held in San Francisco, California, July 27, 1915; Also at a Meeting in the Eleventh Ward Chapel, Salt Lake City, Utah, Dec. 26, 1915,” Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, April 1916, 53-69 (ox story on p. 66-67, in remarks that came from neither of the two speeches named in the title, but rather from another retelling missing from LFA’s bibliography:)

    Joseph F. Smith, “Recollections,” Juvenile Instructor, 24 June 1871, 98-99.

  16. Natalie, Orson Pratt pretty much makes the same argument in Utah, and it is a way of reconciling the various teachings.

    Dane, smb is right. I think what you describe is something of an extrapolation from the KFD. On the development of child salvation doctrine, see here.

    Nice Ardis. When I first read Lavina’s article, I think I was expecting something else, but it is useful for this topic. Your additions to her bibliography are important. I seem to remember downloading a presentation by Scott Kenney on this topic once, but can’t find it – probably part of his biography work. I think there is enough to cover in this one incident to be an entire paper. I think it is one of the most commonly known pioneer healings, along with JS on the banks of the Mississippi.

  17. What is it exactly that makes us assume that animals and small children can’t exercise faith? To my way of thinking, animals and small children have perfect faith.

    For example, if my dog is hurt or sick he will always come to me. Why does he do that? Because he has faith that I can do something to make him better. I have never had occasion to give him a priesthood blessing, but if I did, though he might not understand what I was doing, he would have a full and complete expectation that it would make him better. Isn’t that faith?

    The same applies to small children. Though their understanding is limited, they have faith that their parents will help them, sometimes even when all evidence is to the contrary. If you lay your hands on them to heal them, they belive you are doing what is necessary for them and that it will help them. They don’t doubt. They have to learn that.

  18. 13, 14: My guess is that like so many rumors about stuff Joseph Smith said, this one was started by Truman Madsen in Joseph Smith the Prophet. If I recall correctly he (Madsen) makes a statement which is simply conjecture suggesting that children who die would have to gain the experience necessary for exaltation somehow or another. Joseph Smith never says that, and Madsen doesn’t actually say Joseph said that, but he says, in essence, that this is the implication of the prophet’s teachings based on his having read the prophet “through and through.”

  19. Ah, the smooth Kirkian refrains of Br. Madsen…

  20. Velikye Kniaz says:

    Hmm, Scott Kenny…Wasn’t he the founder of Sunstone who was majoring in Theology at Berkeley? Didn’t he leave the Church and become a Protestant minister of some type? Has he returned to the Church? Personally, I doubted that would ever happen. When I met him in 1973 the drift away was already well underway.

  21. So the Mary Fielding event is conjecture or folklore. Are there stories of other women blessing their animals unto healing?

  22. Margaret, the Mary Fielding event is actually fairly well documented, except that it was some men that she asked to do it that actually anointed the ox. The story that she did it, is a pervasive folklore, for which I can’t account.

    Of the thousands of healing accounts we have read, only a handful related to animals – less than ten. In all these accounts is was men. Now, the paper that Kris and I are currently working on traces female ritual healing from 1848 on and will show with, perhaps to some, surprising detail the commonality of such activities.

  23. Gotta love a post that barrows the lyric from Fugue for Tinhorns! Was the horse actually named Paul Revere?

  24. StillConfused says:

    A few years back I was very sick and told my father. He and his wife went to the temple to put me on the prayer list. While they were there, they also put their missing dog on the prayer list (said dog having a first, middle and last name). My dad’s wife told me she knew I would get better because after putting the dog’s name on the list, the dog came home.

  25. I’ll bet that many a priesthood holder has given at least one blessing to a jackass.

  26. Martineau didn’t indicate the horse’s name, but I like to think that it was Paul Revere.

  27. #26 – All this time I thought any horse worth singing about had no name.

  28. I’m pickin’ Valentine, ’cause on the morning line, a guy has got him figured at five to nine

  29. Many years ago my children brought home stray cat, or rather it brought itself home and they wanted to keep it. Within days it became ill, natch. So I gave it a blessing. Looking back that seems very odd–odd enough that I wondered whether I should disguise myself!–but at the time it seemed natural and right. I think it was. (But it died.)

  30. Aaron Brown says:

    An elder in my mission often blessed sick stray animals, as well as the occasional broken-down appliance. I understand that his blessings were not particularly effective, though I suppose it would be unfair to judge the faithfulness of inanimate hunks of metal without knowing the full story. You may quote me in your paper, Stapley.


  31. MCQ #17, I like that. I agree completely in regards to faith in small children, and although I have very little experience with animals, I can imagine that as well.

  32. Mark B. says:

    I have cursed several stray cats, and have pronounced an anathema on all who come into our yard.

    But neither those cursings nor the random efforts of our yellow labrador seem to have been effective in keeping the cats from returning.

    It seems, alas, that the price of freedom (from stray cats, even) is eternal vigilance.

  33. When I was a kid a beloved cat got run over and killed by a car. I mourned that cat, it was a vital part of my life. I remember kneeling in the hallway to the back door of our house and praying fervently that there was a “cat heaven” or a place for creatures that were loved by humans. If that cat had only been wounded, I probably would have asked someone at the very least to bless it so it would be relieved of suffering. It is not a stretch for me to imagine anyone feeling the spirit to bless any living thing that is in pain, fridges, not so much.

  34. My Stake Pres. said in Sac. meeting, that it is wrong to use the priesthood to bless animals, and did so in very strong terms. Was he right or not? I have no idea where he got that teaching from.

  35. CEF, in the nineteenth century it was not viewed as “wrong.” I think it would be fair to say that today it would be considered exceptional to the rule.