Healing Primarily

On Sunday, I received a blessing for being the husband of the Primary President. We sat down in our traditional area of the chapel and the family in front of us turned around to inform the president that the members of their family that teach the nine and ten year-olds would not be at church. Nice. My wife then turned to me and asked if I would teach the class, hurrying off to the closet where she keeps the spare lesson manuals.

During the Sacrament meeting, I read through the lesson. Naaman and Elisha. Okay; of all the possible lessons to teach, this was pretty cool. The kids were more interested in how exactly leprosy presents than I expected (lots of ewwwws) and it went smoothly. We didn’t talk about why I like the story so much. You see, Naaman’s dipping seven times in the Jordan became an archetype for Latter-day Saint baptism for health. Baptism for health lasted from Nauvoo to the 1920s and recipients were often dipped seven times.

However, in the “Enrichment Section” of the lesson was something that was even cooler than the baptism for health connection:

4. Tell the children the following story:

President David O. McKay was in Berlin, Germany, in 1952 when he received a message from one of the members of the Church in that mission—a sister whose husband and eldest son had both been killed. She had been driven from her home, and because of exposure and lack of nutrition she finally became paralyzed and had been confined to her bed for five years. She expressed the desire that her two little children—a boy and a girl about ten and twelve years of age—be sent over to meet the President of the Church. This good sister said, “I know if I send my children to shake hands with President McKay, and then they come home and take my hand—if I can hold their little hands in mine I know that I shall get better.”

Arrangements were made for them to take the trip. President McKay said, “When that little girl and boy came along, I went to them and shook their hands, and said, ‘Will you take this handkerchief to your mother with my blessing?’ I later learned that after I had shaken hands with them, they would not shake hands with anyone else, for they did not want to touch anyone with their hands until they got back to their mother.”

The mission president’s wife later reported, “Immediately after the children came home, her feet and toes began to get feeling in them, and this feeling slowly moved up into her legs. And now she gets out of bed alone and seats herself on a chair, and then, with her feet and the chair, works all the way around to the kitchen sink, where she has the children bring her the dishes to wash, and other things, and is very thankful that she is able to help now.” (Adapted from Cherished Experiences from the Writings of President David O. McKay, comp. Clare Middlemiss, rev. ed. [1976], pp. 142–44.)

Did you just see that? A healing handkerchief people! David O. McKay! Rock on.

I didn’t end out sharing the story, but I was a bit surprised to find such an awesome account in the primary manual. From the paper Kris and I wrote on the development of Mormon healing:

Following the biblical precedent of the Apostle Paul (Acts 19:12), members of the Quorum of the Twelve sometimes touched or sent handkerchiefs to people in order to heal them. [82] Joseph Smith Sr. issued the first extant instruction on such healing as part of Lorenzo Snow’s December 1836 patriarchal blessing, where he declared that Lorenzo would have faith “like that of Peter thy shadow shall restore the sick—the diseased shall send to thee their handkerchiefs and aprons and by thy touch their owners shall be healed.” [83] Such activities were quite rare compared to other means of healing; however they illustrate the degree to which the early Mormons sought to embody the power of the biblical apostles and modeled their healing practices on New Testament precedents.

82. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, 165; George D. Smith, An Intimate Chronicle, 31; Woodruff, Journal, 1:409. Heber C. Kimball also appears to have healed by passing along other articles of clothing. Mary Ellen Kimball, Diary, undated entry preceding July 5, 1857, microfilm of holograph, LDS Church History Library

83. Joseph Smith Sr., Patriarchal Blessing to Lorenzo Snow, December 15, 1836, MS 1330 1, vol. 1, in Selected Collections, 1:31. That Lorenzo engaged in the practice of healing via handkerchief is attested to in Eliza R. Snow Smith, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Company, 1884), 264–65.

Joseph Smith eventually followed suit, perhaps most famously passing his handkerchief along to Wilford Woodruff who used it for decades. My favorite account of Joseph Smith involves one of my ancestors, John Lowe Butler. The prophet blessed his cloak for healing and for the rest of his life, the family wrapped their sick in it, and they were apparently healed. From his biographer:

In 1945 Bertha M. Butler wrote that the family of John Lowe Butler, Jr., inherited the cloak:

The family would often put it around an afflicted person and through their faith in the blessing of the cape they were made better. The cape became old and somewhat shabby and was finally cut into ten pieces, one piece each for the ten [nine surviving] children of John L. Butler II. My husband John Lowe Butler III received one piece of the cape and I have had it in my possession for nearly 30 years. [49 – this footnote includes some additional awesomeness] [1]

The first thing that a lot of people think when they hear such things is, “Magic!” Mike Quinn has a picture of the a fragment of the Butler cloak in his Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. And while I agree that there is definitely an influence of a magical world view at play, I also think it is important to consider these events as explicit biblical recapitulation (see here for similar comments).

While neither probably would appreciate the connection, I generally view Mormonism as the true antecedent to Pentacostalism. Some Protestants starting in the late nineteenth-century Divine Healing movement, through Pentacostalism to the present, used (and still use) handkerchiefs to heal the sick. [2] A quick internet search brings up lots fun stuff.

Beyond the earliest Saints, though, healing via handkerchief (or cane, cloak) generally waned among the Saints. My distant cousins with the cloak fragment appear generally anachronistic. Now, I have heard rumors that President Joseph F. Smith did bless handkerchiefs for people that asked (this is strictly anecdotal – I would love, love, love some documentation for it). I was delighted to see President David O. McKay celebrated in an act of old timey Mormonism within the Primary curriculum.


  1. William G. Hartley, My Best for the Kingdom: History and Autobiography of John Lowe Butler, a Mormon Frontiersman (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1993), 114, 452 note 49.
  2. Michael S. Stephens, Who Healeth All Thy Diseases: Health, Healing, and Holiness in the Church of God Reformation Movement (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2008), 70 note 23; Amy Sitar, “Praying for power: Dispositions and discipline in the Azusa Street Revival’s Apostolic Faith,” Poetics 36 (2008): 458; R. Marie Griffith, “Material Devotion: Pentecostal Prayer Cloths,” Material History of American Religion Project Newsletter (Spring 1997), 1-3; Douglas H. Pessoni, With Healing in His Wings: A Complete and Concise Presentation of God’s Healing Gospel, 3rd ed. (British Columbia, Canada: CCB Publishing, 2008), 111.


  1. The infamous “Begging for Billions” Robert Tilton used to do the same thing with his TV show. One could send in an “offering of faith” and get back a paper napkin that the televangelist had “prayed over” that could be used for healing all sorts of infirmities.

    I’ve seen all sorts of other trinkets and items sent out by various ministries – particularly in some inner city neighborhoods. One fine gentleman I knew quite well, Brother Nelson, collectively refered to all these items as “hoobie dust”. His wife had sent some checks off at some point in the past and was on just about every mailing list imaginable. Plastic horseshoes, paper napkins, small pieces of satin cut with pinking shears, plastic nails, and all sorts of stuff. I imagine the same things have been going on for the past 2,000 years, with pieces of the True Cross spread just about everywhere. I’ve also seen modern advertisements for pieces of the original Nauvoo Temple, but no miraculous healing properties were attributed. A remodel of the Boise, Idaho temple about 20 years ago also culminated in a “Boy Scout Fundraiser” with pieces of marble tile from the temple contractor being mounted onto plaques and etched with a picture of the temple.

    We’re not all that far removed from relic use when it comes right down to it.

  2. Very cool post. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Neat, J. I remember that McKay incident now that you mention it (I wasn’t there – I just remember the Middllemiss book a little). A holy man by all accounts.

  4. Cools stuff J. Good work.

  5. Nice post.

  6. Great stuff! Thanks J.

  7. Great fun. I worry about your historical/causal argument (though I agree they sort of sniff the same)–why not argue that Mormonism and Pentecostalism both (partly at least) reflect radical Methodism? Pentecostals are pretty straight up (as i recall) in deriving from Methodist Holiness traditions, no?

  8. Thanks for the comments.

    smb, you are correct that there isn’t much historical/causal argument to make. The evolution of Pentecostalism is fairly straightforward, coming from both Wesleyan and Reformed (and other) Holiness/Divine Healing traditions. Mormonism was offensive to these folks.

    Michael, while we should definitely look out for hucksters (though we should probably worry more about those pitching the latest snake-oil than holy relic), I think that you disparage relicism too broadly.

  9. In my family’s history, my grandmother was healed from diphtheria from a handkerchief blessed by her paternal grandfather, Jesse N. Smith (Snowflake Arizona) and then placed on her throat. This would have been about 1897. We’ve never talked about what happened to that handkerchief but how neat that would be if it had been kept and treasured.
    I’ve often thought (and even commented to Primary Presidents) that the husband should be considered the 3rd counselor. Primary Presidents are blessed by the support (literal and emotional) they receive from their husbands.

  10. Jones, you don’t happen to have any documentation for that would you?

  11. J., I’ll have to review some of my own family documentation.

    This is a fascinating topic. I see a lot relation between relics and what we in information science call information-bearing objects. There is something innate or that became innate in a lot of these objects that remains of use and respect. The word embedded comes to mind. Even the embedded nature of the gold plates is something of interest as a faith-filled, holy-filled entity through which miracles proceed.

    Uh… yeah.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    When I read your first sentence, I thought you meant that some folks laid their hands on your head and gave you a blessing so that you could preservere as the husband of the PP. Actually not a halfbad idea.

    (I enjoyed the post.)

  13. I have a buffalo horn chair that was passed down from pioneer ancestors. A variety of faith promoting stories are associated with it.

    Supposedly the gold plates were hidden in the seat when Brigham Young brought them across the plains and are now safely hidden in the archives. Or was it the yet unpublished last Spaulding manuscript with Rigdon’s elaborations penciled in the margins, I can’t remember.

    Brigham Young was sitting in the buffalo horn chair when he said “This is the place, I can go no further.” One of the horns was sticking him in the back.

    Many of the stains on the chair were made by seagull poop after they ate too many crickets.

    The wood forming the seat was miraculously provided when an ancestor was inspired to get up at night and move his tied team of horses from one tree to another. A tornado came and blew the tree down and killed the horses. (Parody of a Wilford Woodruff preservation story).

    You can get a testimony of the BoM by reading it from cover to cover all at one time while sitting in the buffalo horn chair. (This took me about 25 hours.) You can skip the part where you have to pray about it and it still works.

    The 26 horns each represent apostates killed (blood atoned) by the ancestor who made it. Porter Rockwell had a whole living room set of buffalo horn furniture; chairs, couches, tables, hat racks, lamp stands, etc. Everyone down in Parowan has buffalo horn furniture.

    Some of the horns of the back appear to depict the letters AA. Does this stand for avenging angel? Perhaps it is a hint to some descendants that they need to consider joining AA (alcoholics anonymous).

    Coffe drank while sitting in the buffalo horn chair need not be mentioned in temple recommend interviews.

    Infertility was cured when a great grandmother sat in the chair and prayed all night. Several of my cousins became pregnant as unmarried teenagers; perhaps they sat in the chair too long.

    My grandfather tried to donate the buffalo horn chair to the Church Museum of History and Art. They said they would be pleased to accept it, but he was warned in a dream that it would never see the light of day again. Mark Hoffman later offered the family over half a million dollars for it.

    Rod Meldrum (my wife’s first cousin and my second cousin) was sitting in the buffalo horn chair when he recieved the inspiration that “Joseph Knew.” (Where the Indians came from). Joseph knew where the buffalo whose horns were used to make the chair came from.

    I can not reveal the sealed portion of the buffalo horn chair stories at this time. Here is a picture of a chair that looks sort of like mine. http://www.bumsteer.com/chair%205-21-10%20002_small.JPG

    My chair is made of smaller rounder dark horns (characteristic of buffalo not cow horns) and more of them are sticking in odd directions and the fabric is all black and shaggy. Mine looks older, like Uncle Orvil left it out under an apricot tree for a few years, probably because he did.

  14. Very cool post. My personal view of relicism has been just like Michael’s — I had no idea Mormons did the handkerchief thing. I have to re-evaluate, but I’m predisposed against the idea.

    I love to substitute teach in primary! Beats the socks off EQ or HP. I never get to do it anymore because that would require finding another man to accompany me (cause men are evil), so I say enjoy it whenever you can. Subbing in Sunday School is pretty fun too, though, so I’m not bitter.

  15. Who’d have thought Stapley of all people would learn something from those Primary manuals…

  16. Excellent post, made even better by #13.

  17. I’m sure every Bishop wants the Primary President and her family preserved, Kevin. Perhaps we should institute some form of blessing procedure.

    Martin, personally, I had to get over anti-catholic sentiments which I absorbed from my youth before I could contextualize and appreciated some practices, which are now not really part of our lived religion. I’m not saying that you are anti-catholic, but I think there is often a gut reaction to religious practice proscribed by current convention. (you may be interested in this as well)

    Pretty awesome, huh, Cynthia?

  18. #13 FTW!

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