Of healings, canes, and gardens

And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul: So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them. (Acts 19:11-12)

Early Mormons were consciously biblical in their world-view. Healing rituals in particular followed the precedents explicitly exemplified in the Bible. Perhaps not surprisingly, though rare compared to other forms of ritual healing, the Twelve and then Joseph Smith passed along handkerchiefs which they had blessed to the sick to heal them. Stories of such activities still remain in popular thought; the New Testament Seminary manual recounts the famous healings at Montrose in which Joseph gave Wilford Woodruff one such handkerchief that remained “a league between” the men. [1]

Some have pointed to healing handkerchiefs as a manifestation of the culture of magic that ostensibly saturated the world of early Mormonism. While I think that magic is a useful framework to understand several aspects our history, early Mormons do not appear to have used healing handkerchiefs as a reflection of Catholic healing relics, royal cramp rings or gifts associated with “the king’s touch.”[2] Instead the use of these bits of clothe appear to be a conscious recapitulation of New Testament example. In discussing this dynamic in our forthcoming paper, Kris and I include the following in a footnote:

…The use of healing by coffin canes and the cherished handkerchiefs kept by Mormons from the Nauvoo era do [however] appear by the Utah era to have taken on a character very similar to Catholic relics. Heber C. Kimball, March 15, 1857, Journal of Discourses, 4:294. For an introduction to the healing canes fashioned from Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s coffins, see Steven G. Barnett, “Canes of the Restoration,” in James B. Allen, ed., “The Historian’s Corner,” BYU Studies 21, no. 2 (1981): 205–11. Such cases are rare; we have found only one individual who healed by using a cane besides those practitioners described in Barnett’s article, namely, John Albiston, Letter, April 30, 1848, Ashton-under-Lyne, England, Millennial Star 10 (May 15, 1848): 158.

Willard Richards with his coffin cane.

Willard Richards with his coffin cane.

If you are not familiar with the healing canes mentioned in this note, after Latter-day Saints hauled the corpses of the Prophet and Patriarch from Carthage, they hewed canes from the oaken coffins, which apparently had miraculous properties. As Heber C. Kimball aspired in the aforecited discourse: “the day will come when there will be multitudes who will be healed and blessed through the instrumentality of those canes[.]”

Unfortunately, the next issue of JMH should soon be mailed and it is far too late to add unto the text. I recently read a diary entry that would have been a helpful addition. In Winter Quarters before the Vanguard Company left for the great Basin in 1847, one man suffered with violent fever and vomiting. Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, Willard Richards and Levi Stewart came to his residence in the Tabernacle city and Young “laid on my breast a cane built from one of the branches of the Tree of Life that stood in the garden in the Temple.” [3] The sick man described that “this as a matter to be expected, collected my thoughts and centered them on sacred and solemn things.” Stewart and Woodruff then anointed and blessed him.

The image of the Saints cast out from their Sacred Garden, suffering in the lonely, bitter world, and yet clinging to the scraps that remained is poignant to me. Here is a key to one of the grand mysteries of Mormonism: we are all Adam and we are all Eve. And were I able, I would reach up and take for my self a bit of the Garden.


  1. Wilford Woodruff, Leaves from My Journal, Book 3 of THE FAITH-PROMOTING SERIES, (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1881), 75–79
  2. See Shaw Miracles in Enlightenment England, 64–75; Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 227–35. An unrelated but delicious antecedent is Oliver Cowdery’s sprig “sprout of nature” as described in the forthcoming Joseph Smith Papers volume (I think it is sprig – I’m going from memory of the MHA presentation; someone correct me if I am mistaken) [thanks Robin].
  3. In previous generations the dramatic ritual known as the “Endowment” was played out in several rooms, as James Talmage described in his House of the Lord: the Creation Room, the Garden Room, the Terrestrial Room, the Telestial Room and the Celestial Room. Living plants were a regular feature of the Garden Room into the 1920s and the Salt Lake Temple had a greenhouse adjoining it for the purpose of maintaining the greenery.

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  1. Excellent, J.

  2. Great post, J. I seem to remember that there was a red handkerchief of Wilford Woodruff’s on display at the Church Museum during the Joseph Smith exhibit that was supposed to have been this handkerchief that was given to him by Joseph Smith.

  3. I think you mislabeled the picture. Looks to me like a long lost photograph of Joseph Smith. Otherwise, great post. I didn’t know about the healing canes, good stuff.

  4. Very cool stuff, J. Thanks.

  5. I really don’t mean to be a stickler but the article from Steven G. Barnett is entitled, “Canes of the Martyrdom.” Awesome topci, by the way!!

  6. Well Nate, you get the joy of pointing out a flaw in a footnote that isn’t yet published but will be soon and won’t change. For a footnote connoisseur, that stings a bit (grin).

    Would have loved to have seen that handkerchief, Jared. I understand that the DUP have some similar relics.

    And thanks for the nice comments.

  7. First I had heard of the canes, J. I like the symbolism of the “Tree of Life…from the Garden in the Temple”. Great post.

  8. Jacob, in prospecting for new pictures, I am sure that there have been lower hurdles than holding a cane made from his coffin.

  9. I’m just happy about at “shout-out”. Keep up the great work J.!!

  10. What is this? J, you have some nerve thoroughly reading the sources and then finding the most likely explanatory interpretive framework. Where is the excitement in that? Where is the, uh, magic? FWIW, this is the way scholars should approach and challenge previous work–by producing a counter argument rising from the sources (not by writing 200 page “reviews”). I’m looking forward to this article.

  11. Years ago, I read of some folklore that the Cross was hewn from wood of the Tree of Life. I wish I had some source for that, but it has been a very long time. Clearly a metaphorical sentiment, but interesting nonetheless.
    Thanks, Jonathan!

  12. I have heard talk of relics of sorts that included the hair of Joseph and others. I imagine the article will discuss it. If only I could afford a subscription right now!

  13. Jonathan Green says:

    Jonathan, about your fn. 3, and in answer to Margaret’s question:

    In the “Legend of the True Cross,” Adam is dying, and and angel tells him that a branch from the Tree of Life will heal him. Adam sends Seth to retrieve a branch, which he does. But when Seth returns, Adam is already dead. Seth thinks his journey has been in vain, and plants the branch on Adam’s grave. The branch grows into a tree, and is eventually cut down by the workers building Solomon’s temple and planed into a beam. The beam doesn’t fit anywhere in the temple, so it’s used as a simple bridge across a stream outside. Eventually it becomes the beam of the Crucifix, and thus the source of Adam’s healing.

    If memory serves, this particular legend is one of the older ones, late antique rather than early or late medieval, and it was known throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and shows up in many forms. The statement that there was “laid on my breast a cane built from one of the branches of the Tree of Life that stood in the garden in the Temple” for the purpose of healing presents enough correspondences to the “Legend of the True Cross” that the similarity doesn’t, on first glance, seem accidental. So I’d guess that the reference is to some form of the legend, rather than to a potted plant from the Nauvoo temple, although you’d have to take a closer look at the sources.

  14. BHodges, apparently several of the canes were topped with a piece of glass, underwhich was placed a lock of Joseph Smith’s hair. Josh Probert presented at MHA a couple of years ago on hair objects as material culture. It was wonderful. I wish he would publish it.

    Jonathan Green, that is a fascinating comment. I think with the documented plants that adorned the Nauvoo temple (and later Endowment House and Temples), the fact that all the participants interacted with the trees (at least in Nauvoo and the Endowment House), and the journal specifying a “cane,” suggests (especially in light of later cane healing) that this was actually a cane that was built from the tree in the Temple. I do love that legend, though, and I will do some digging to see if it is ever referenced in Early Mormon circles. I’ve never come across it before, though.

  15. boaporg says:

    J. nice work. Looking forward to the article. Once upon a time I was Jim Kimball’s home teacher. He had one of those canes in a glass case on his living room wall I think (it’s been awhile). I was tempted to burglary. It was a borrowed object so it was leaving his possession shortly after that. I think it may have been passed around the family.


  16. That has to be one of the coolest family heirlooms. Imagine the conversations over the generations: “Its my turn to host the cane. You had it five years ago, and it is starting to be flu season!”

  17. Jonathan Green says:

    Well, Jonathan, yes, but then there’s the question why early saints would think that the Tree of Life from the temple would have healing properties. Assuming that the cane was made from one of those potted plants, where does the idea of using it for healing come from? The similarities to the medieval legend are still pretty close.

    Whether or not the early saints knew about the story is another matter. It’s certainly possible. As my final contribution to the topic, here’s a link to pp. 327-328 of Freemasons Quarterly Magazine, March 1850: http://books.google.com/books?id=UPcDAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA328&dq=temple+seth+%22tree+of+life%22&lr=&as_drrb_is=b&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is=&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=1850&as_brr=3

  18. Nice. In a quick look, I also found some pre-1840 British references to the legend as decidedly apocryphal. To be sure a systematic search is necessary, but the idea that the Tree of Life forestalls mortality isn’t something that is particularly unique to this legend (it is rather essential to the foundational narrative). The garden was one of the most potent ideas in Joseph’s religion [queue Sam]. The diary I cited (early 1847) is the earliest example of cane healing of which I am aware. The question is what drove these people to use first this cane and then the coffin canes to heal. It is my, albeit preliminary, reading that Mormons in Nauvoo would not have needed to reach for the “Legend of the True Cross.” And right now there is no evidence that they did (though it is possible that some does exist).

    Note as well, that Joseph Smith viewed the Nauvoo temple to be a special space for physical healing, an idea that was conserved in Utah temples into the twentieth century.

    The tree within the canvas walls of the Nauvoo Garden was ordinary and profane, yet was made sacred in the Saints holy drama. Two years earlier they had made canes from Joseph’s coffin. in 1846 as they left, it appears that they did the same for at least one of its branches.

  19. For those interested, Woodruff’s diary is an interesting context to the coffin canes (August 23, 1844):

    …I visited Emma Smith the widow of the prophet. She let me have a peace of oak for a Staff [graphic] out of the [graphic] Coffin of the Prophet Joseph who was inhumanly martered in Carthage Ill in company with his brother Hiram… We called upon Sister Mary Smith widow of Hiram Smith the Patriarch. She gave us some hair from the head of Joseph Smith, Hiram Smith, Samuel Smith, & Don Carloss Smith, all brothers of the same Parents. I also obtained some hair of the quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. My object was in putting a portion of each in the top of my staff as a relick of those noble men, master spirits of the nineteenth centaury, to hand down to my posterity, to deposit in the most Holy and Sacred place in the Holy temple of GOD, on the consecrated Hill of Zion.

  20. A note to my descendants: If you make a cane out of my coffin ill-health will follow whosoever keeps it. It shall be called the curse of cane.

  21. Robin Jensen says:

    Excellent post, J. A minor difference: it’s a sprout, not a sprig.

  22. I’ve been looking forward to this since Nauvoo. Thanks J.

  23. Thanks Robin. I’ll fix it in the post.

  24. Outstanding post and discussion. My hat is off to you, J.

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