BCC Zeitcast 58: Female Ritual Healing In Mormonism

The BCC Zeitcast returns with a brand new season!

In this two-part episode, Scott B. and J. Stapley discuss the long-promised and oft-cited paper on Female Ritual Healing which Stapley and BCC Emeritus Kris Wright co-authored, and which will be published in the Winter 2011 Journal of Mormon History, due out this January.
Part 1: Part 2:

Links for your convenience:

1. Stapley & Wright paper on Baptisms for Health.
2. Stapley & Wright paper on all forms of healing.
3. Journal of Mormon History.
4. Excerpt of Scott B.’s G.G.G. Grandmother’s Journal.

If you have problems with the audio player, then you can download Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Subscribe to the BCC Zeitcast in iTunes or through our dedicated RSS feed. (And don’t forget to leave a review in iTunes!)


  1. 10 bonus points for the first non-BCC commenter to name the artist for the outro music at the end of Part 2!

  2. Also, thanks to Matt Page for the green album cover for Season 4. We are always trying to be more environmentally friendly at BCC, and this helps tremendously.

  3. Next you’re going to tell me that Axl is finally going to release Chinese Democracy. . .

  4. As to the band playing at the end of ep 2. I really don’t know, but due to its garagy-un-produced/grunge sound, I’m going to venture a guess: Splendid Sun (?)

  5. 10 bonus points for B. Russ! I’m amazed that you guessed!

  6. What can I say, there’s not much grunge music I don’t know/have in my collection, and the fact that Stapley used to play in a band is the type of dumb trivia that sticks with me.

  7. “. . . [Y]ou don’t like the idea of people using history as a weapon. I think I could say with a fair amount of confidence that people are going to use this paper as a weapon”


  8. Great podcast! I’ve been so curious about this paper for the last year, J. Thanks for doing this.

  9. BTW, I added an additional link to the post–an excerpt to my GGG Grandmother’s journal where she describes healing a young boy. J. and I talked about this story briefly in the podcast, and since I happen to have the text here, I figured some of you may be interested in seeing it.

  10. I don’t think it’s insignificant that the hammer was coming down on post-manifesto polygamy and clarifying what the rule was about that at the same time. Women’s roles in the church were shifting at the time (the RS coming under the First Presidency), and the small nuclear family was being solidified. Gender roles within the home were being emphasized by reinforcing the polygamy rule and making healing tied more to the in-home patriarch. So there’s my theory.

  11. The can(n)on shot heard round the world? Excellent.

  12. Really guys, amazing zeitcast! It makes me sad that some of the best and the very first women in the church in Russia left because they began healing people with no claims to the priesthood–based solely on their own interpretation of scripture, and were strongly chastized by Elders and Soviet- style church leaders.

  13. Thanks all, and special thanks to Scott to pull this together. It is a lot of work to produce these things.

    Also a note that while we got to talk about some fun things, we only caught a couple of the trends described in the forthcoming paper, which describes in a lot more detail, a lot more of what is going on.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Really nice cast, guys.

  15. Absolutely, J. This conversation really doesn’t even scratch the surface of the breadth or depth of the paper. It wasn’t until I was editing it that I realized how truly little content we touched upon. Nevertheless, I think this podcast would serve as an excellent primer for anyone who is unfamiliar with the subject and would like to read your and Kris’s paper.

  16. To the extent that anyone who listens to these podcasts is hearing about female ritual healing for the first time, I’m curious about your reactions and thoughts.

  17. Steve Evans says:

    J., quick question about your title — why ritual healing? How is that distinguishable from female healing in a generalized religious sense? Just clarifying terms.

  18. Steve, perhaps a better title would have been “ritualized healing.” In any case, both women and men attempted to heal with botanic cures, or medicines. But the thrust of this paper is how women participated in the Mormon healing liturgy and an analysis of the various ritual components of that liturgy.

  19. Steve Evans says:

    Got it.

    I’d also be curious about your research on the mingling of some of those botanical cures with liturgy. Some remain, e.g. olive oil, but the use today is far removed from earlier slatherings.

  20. J., in a similar vein as Steve’s question, one word I’ve seen you use in the past (not necessarily in this context) is “charismatic”–typically in the context of gifts of the spirit. Does such a descriptor apply to the healings described in this paper (what about botanic or medicinal?)? Similarly, what about healings of the sort featured in Fletch 2–the kind of “DEMONS OUT!” and push in the head type healings?

    Maybe what I’m asking is whether “charismatic” can be applied to a large group, or just a small subset, regardless of it’s liturgical context. Or, more simply, what makes one form of healing “charismatic” and another form something else?

    At this point, I’m not sure my question makes a lick of sense.

  21. Great podcast, guys. I’d say it was the best one yet, except I wouldn’t know. :)

  22. and did you come across any exorcisms? Serious question.

  23. Steve, that is an excellent question, and one which will be the topic of…you guessed it…a forthcoming paper (I think). Kris Wright in here MHA paper a couple of years ago also had some cool stuff. But at it’s height there were significant synchrotisms, e.g., mixing consecrated oil with medicines, and as Ardis has described, using it as a catheter lubricant.

    Scott, I think the best place to go with that is the second paper on ritual development to 1847. In a nutshell, charisma is the power that Joseph Smith wanted all people to attain. The rituals then channeled that power. But sometimes no rituals were necessary for the power of God to be manifest.

    mmiles, absolutely. Healing rituals (including baptism for health and anointing) among other ritual forms were regularly employed for exorcisms. And women were part of that. I believe Steve Taysom is working on a study of exorcism.

  24. catheter lubricants ftw.

  25. “I believe Steve Taysom is working on a study of exorcism.”

    Don’t all parents of two-year-olds do that at some point? ;)

  26. Just finished part 2. Great job guys. This is a very interesting subject and important in understanding how early Saints thought of their position/faith in the restoration.

  27. #1 – Scott, isn’t it impossible for a “non-BCC commenter” to provide the answer to your question through a comment at BCC? Doing so makes that person a “BCC commenter”.

    Therefore, B. Russ should lose the 10 points, and you should comb other blogs for someone who answers your question somewhere other than BCC.

  28. J.-
    The handbooks are very clear on administering to the sick now, when did that become written, official policy?

  29. 24 – Catheter Lubricants was my second guess if I had been wrong with Splendid Sun

    28 – Oh Gilligan, we’re never gonna get off this island!

  30. Well played Ray (27). I should have said non-perma instead…though honestly, I don’t think most of the permas would have gotten it right either!

  31. my 29 should read 27 – Oh Gilligan, we’re never gonna get off this island!

    Doesn’t make much sense the way I have it now.

  32. Yes it does.

  33. Given that you are talking to a Mormon audience, why don’t you call it a blessing? I could understand the clunky “Female Ritual Healing” if you published in an anthropology journal but since it’s a Mormon history journal, why not rely on everyday language?

  34. mmiles, the General Handbook did not contain directions on healing ritual until 1968, which was also the year that such references were removed from the Relief Society handbook. There were also Melchizedek Priesthood handbooks and Missionary handbooks that were important to this dynamic, and which, I explore in more detail in the deathbed ritual piece.

    Hellmut, there are many different healing rituals discussed, that are each important. Moreover, I think that if we were to have limited our discussion to “blessings” it would have inserted presentist tendencies that likely would have distracted from the analyses.

  35. I have to admit–I’m slightly surprised that no one has left a comment of the nature “Wow! I had never heard of this before!”…though I suppose it’s possible that I’m just in the wrong crowd.

  36. I’ll bite. Before Stapley’s many ‘nacle references to his “paper,” I hadn’t heard of it. Fortuitously, last year, I came across one of those journal entries you mention. In my case, it was of my own great-great grandmother . . . who writes about her anointing and healing (and saving) her sick child while her polyg husband was away in hiding. Whoah. So, yeah, this podcast is still kind of blowing my mind. But in a good way.

  37. Thanks for the comment Hunter. I am always looking for more data, so I’ll shoot you an email.

  38. J., This is a timely post for me given the MP/RS lesson on gifts of the spirit this last Sunday. I am currently researching the implications of James 5:14 on early Christian leadership structure and had started a survey of scholarly literature on the subject and I find your second paper listed above (and references) as a useful launch point.

    I like how the paper shows that anointing the sick with oil in Mormonism developed from the Kirtland endowment. It makes me wonder if the early Christian practice developed in a similar arc (from adapting 2nd Temple priestly consecrations).

    I love this quote:

    By 1834 Smith was familiar with Buck’s Theological Dictionary, whose injunction against the ritual use of oil, declaring that the “extraordinary gifts are ceased,” practically defied Smith to engage in the practice.

    Much of the commentary I see that comes first on Google about James 5:14 involves apologetics on why anointing for healing is no longer practiced within a given denomination. I think charismatic movements have forced such rationales to become a little more sophisticated since Buck’s.

  39. That is right, Keller. The rise of Divine Healing in the late 19th century really transformed the intra-Protestant debate on the matter. I also think the reforms of Vatican II are significant.

  40. Alright, my turn for a “Wow! I had never heard of this before!” re: McConkie being comfortable with women in his life doing healings.

  41. Stapley, I really like your thoughts about not wantonly labeling things “evil” that were important sacred experiences for our ancestors. Totally agree.

  42. Cynthia,
    In the original recording, Stapley actually pronounced a curse unto the fourth generation of those who wantonly label things “evil” but I decided to edit it out, since I don’t believe that Aaron Brown’s kids deserve to be covered in boils.

  43. Speaking of Stapley pronouncing things, I learned I’ve been saying Zina wrong all this time. These podcasts are valuable service.

  44. Brian-A,
    Correcting such errors is the sole purpose and mission of all that do. Without proper pronunciation, we’re no better than the Russians.

  45. This was great! I think the political uses of this would be missing the point. I do think it would be transformative in how we view our religious experience. Thanks!

  46. Stapley,

    Did you find any instances of healings done by males not holding the Melchizedek Priesthood, or of people younger than the usual Melchizedek Priesthood age doing such healings?

  47. DavidC, absolutely; though, not surprisingly, ritual performance by adults is orders of magnitude more common.

  48. Fascinating podcast. I had the misconception that female healings were somehow preisthood connected. Instead it appears that they are really prayers with laying on of hands…blessings. That is completely uncontroversial to me. It’s a healing by faith…where your hands are doesn’t seem that critical to me. I have held my children in my arms and prayed for their health…

    I’m also fascinated by how different temples were…the shift to many funcitons being filled in the home is interesting.

    I also found very interesting the peculiar people theory…if healing doesn’t make us different than the priesthood does…so lets make the preisthood more, so the difference is greater.

    I LOVE the image of Camilla joining the circle. It’s just stunning and so whole.

    I’ve never felt I lacked any power as a woman to do anything God wanted me to do. Perhaps this kind of thing is what President Beck means when she says we aren’t living up to our potential.

  49. I got the impression from the podcast that the healings were done in the name of Jesus Christ by virtue of having taken the name of Jesus Christ upon themselves through baptism, hence my question #46 about healings done by anyone who had been baptized. I feel this expands the idea of taking the name of Jesus Christ. Is this correct, or were the healings done simply by virtue of faith in Jesus Christ?

  50. Interesting David…I guess I looked at them as gifts of the spirit…but it is interesting to consider the power of taking upon us the name of Christ.

  51. The rituals were effectuated “in the name of Jesus Christ.” I suspect that whether the blessings were efficacious or not would be an indication of spiritual gifts.

  52. I find in D&C 46:31, which is just after the verses about the gifts of the Spirit, that “all things must be done in the name of Christ, whatsoever you do in the Spirit.” So there is a relationship here between the name and the gifts.

  53. J.,
    britt k mentions in #48 Camilla’s presence in the circle, which reminds me of a question that I’ve been asked several times since recording the podcast and which I keep forgetting to ask:

    Although the use and/or invocation of priesthood authority may not have been the style during the period of time we were largely discussing, I would imagine that the particular blessing Camilla was asked to stand in on did invoke priesthood authority. This raises the question: Should Camilla’s participation in that particular blessing be considered of a different “sort” than those given solely by the gift of faith?

  54. I finally listened to this. This was fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. Thank you for putting this together.

  55. Scott, that is an interesting question. While Joseph F. Smith supported female-only administration, he also wrote, in the 1907 Improvement Era:

    A wife does not hold the priesthood in connection with her husband, but she enjoys the benefits thereof with him; and if she is requested to lay hands on the sick with him, or with any other officer holding the Melchizedek priesthood, she may do so with perfect propriety. It is no uncommon thing for a man and wife unitedly to administer to their children, and the husband being mouth, he may properly say out of courtesy, “By authority of the holy priesthood in us vested.”

    I view Camilla’s participation within that tradition.

  56. Thanks J.–I think I still have part of my question, though:
    In your opinion, should female assistance in blessings which invoke the priesthood be considered a different genre–be it in a historiographical, doctrinal, or ritual sense–than a) female assistance in blessings in which priesthood is not invoked, or b) female performance of blessings (i.e., woman as voice) in which priesthood is not invoked?

  57. Scott, that is a complicated question, one which I believe I won’t fully be able to explain without the publication of the full paper. However, collaborative male-female healings are documented in Nauvoo and continue pretty constantly from there forward. So, for example, you see JFS wife anointing someone and then JFS and his wife jointing sealing the blessing. It all evolved from the same practice.

  58. Part of this boils down to my lack of understanding of the priesthood in general. I’ve grow up with the definition of preisthood as “the power of God and the power to act in the name of God”…yet how are women separated from that? God can give me power to do things and I can act in his name…so what exactly am I missing? an assignment? a general responsibility?

    I’ve understood since my mission the concept of a sealing in the temple involve uniting the husband and wife AND giving them together the priesthood powers and responsibilities to start their own family.

    I’m finding it confusing…

    Any gift of the spirit is available to a woman. yet there is this line with organization in the church and performance of ordinances. Maybe I need to adjust my understand of preisthood to stick with what it really does as different from women right now…don’t know.

  59. britt, look forward to the article when it comes out next month, as it addresses alot of that. Regarding the popular formulation that priesthood is the “power of God,” even Elder McConkie conceded that that wasn’t necessarily accurate. Priesthood is often considered the authority to do certain things; any power comes through faith (see the JST regarding Enoch and high priests, for example). We act “in the name of Jesus Christ” every time we pray, for example. This is of course complicated by Joseph Smith’s introduction of the Temple liturgy and the associated priesthood language (and for that I’ll have to point you to the paper, and my adoption paper coming out in next summer’s JMH).

  60. That sounds great! Thanks! This has been thought provoking…

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