Addenda: Female Healing: Lorenzo Snow

In continuing with the series, I would like to discuss a document that relates to Kris’s and my coauthored article, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism.” This was a project that took more than half a decade to finish, but as I mentioned at the JI, once you start looking, references are ubiquitous and I have located now well over a hundred additional documents since publishing, which relate to the topic.

One of the most challenging of these new documents for me to integrate into the overall topography is a letter written by Quorum of the Twelve President Lorenzo Snow. Lydia Leonora Hatch Savage, wife of Levi Mathers Savage (of willing to die with the handcarts fame), had written to Snow as he was also the Salt Lake Temple President. As such he was in charge of all temple affairs. Savage had several questions related to temple policy. That she included a question about female healing was natural as the temple was a place of special healing where both men and women served as healers. These female healers served to heal, but also to teach women how to heal by example.

Though I do not have Savage’s original letter, we can infer her question from Snow’s response:

In relation to sick children, it is proper to adhere to the revelations, which directs that the Elders should be called in that they may administer the ordinance ordained for the benefit of the sick. It is not improper, however, for sisters to administer to the sick children, but this should not be done by authority of the Priesthood. (1)

What I find peculiar is that this was written in 1898. If it were written just three years later, it would make more sense to me. First, for those unfamiliar with the topic (I encourage you to read the whole article), Church leaders from Joseph Smith to Joseph Fielding Smith encourage female participation in the healing liturgy. However, in 1900, the First Presidency, due to what appears to be pressures from non-Mormon healing groups, cleaved the liturgy in two: priesthood and women. Now Joseph F. Smith continued for the next two decades to widely support women’s authority to administer healing rituals, either alone or with men, but the decision in 1900 really created a fracture in the liturgy that lead to institutional preference for ritual administration by priesthood authority.

To me, Snow’s response anticipates that cleavage by a couple of years. Whereas Brigham Young told women to skip calling on the elders and to administer healing rituals without them, there is a subtle preference in this letter for the elders’ administration. It is also an interesting example of the weight of canonization. While early revelations (1831) indicating that the elder’s should be called upon to lay hands on the sick were canonized, JS’s announced revelation that women were authorized to do the same, like many other Nauvoo revelations, never was.

Lastly, I think it is strange because Snow was the brother of Eliza R. Snow. Eliza R. Snow was perhaps the single most widely known advocate for female ritual healing, though she had by this time passed away. She administered healing rituals to children, other women, men, and apostles alike. It surprises me that Lorenzo Snow would not have been aware of the liturgical history that his sister worked so hard to disseminate.


  1. Lorenzo Snow, Letter to Lydia L[eanora]. [Hatch] Savage, May 8, 1898, Salt Lake City, holograph, MS 10421, LDS Church History Library.


  1. That puts a wrinkle in things, and gives me some perspective. Thanks.

  2. I’ve thought for some time that the “Raid” allowed for some separation among authorities on policy and issues like this one. While this is 10 years after that, Snow was always a bit of an independent. Enjoy these. Looking forward to many more.

  3. Thanks, WVS. That really is an interesting idea. I haven’t thought about that much, and it had to have been important.

  4. themormonbrit says:

    Thanks for this, J Stapley. I really am enjoying this series! They really make me think, which I guess can’t be a bad thing.

  5. This is fascinating. I have never given a priesthoodal them, I have had profound experiences while holding my sick children and praying earnestly, calling down the powers of Heaven to heal my child, or to show me what I must do to heal them. The exact experiences are private, but I can say that while I felt prompted to do it at the time, I have always wondered if I really “should” have done it, or if I should have woken up a couple of priesthood holders to come and administer a blessing.

    This gives me a new perspective on my own life, but also of the lives of earlier saints. Since both of my biological parents were converts. I wonder if I had been born into a family whose history of church membership went back prior to 1900, would I have found other examples of women who had similar experiences as mothers in my own family tree? If I had known about this institutional use of healing power by women, would some of my experiences with priesthood leaders, with whom I had difficult relationships, been easier because I could have called on a worthy RS sister to administer to me in my times of trial?

    For someone who is not a scholar of church history, this was fascinating, and enlightening, and a little perplexing, all at once. Thank you for giving me something important to think about.

  6. Sheesh I hate how the posting system works sometimes. Please replace “priesthoodal them” with “priesthood blessing to my children”

  7. Chris Kimball says:

    Thanks for this addition. I’m curious whether the phenomenon of a preference becoming a rule happens everywhere, in all societies. It is certainly part of the Mormon experience and history.

    Starting with the experience you describe in your original paper (JMH page 84), I know of three generations of women blessing family members in the late 20th and early 21st century. Always awkward — about the rightness and the ritual. There seems to be nothing left of any ritual practice, so every woman’s blessing is ad hoc.

  8. Chris, thanks for the comment. I appreciate it. I hope that you have chosen to document those experiences. And I agree that there are some aspects of the dynamics at play that are representative in most human interactions. One might even make economic arguments to describe the phenomena. But I do think that there are aspects of it that get amplified in Mormonism.

    Julia, glad that you found it interesting!

  9. I had another thought while responding to a different post. I wonder if there are parts of priesthood ceremonies or rituals which were lost in this process? Where there internal family conflicts as blessings became increasingly more “male” and less “female?”

  10. themormonbrit says:

    My grandmother once told me a story she knew about one of her friends. She had a sick child and there was no priesthood holder available. So I’m not sure if she gave the child a regular blessing, or if she said a prayer while laying her hands on the child’s head, but anyway my grandmother used the story to back up her belief that in situations where priesthood holders are not available, women can exercise God’s priesthood for a limited period of time. in other words, God sort of lends them the priesthood power for a short space of time.
    I love my grandmother. She knows lots of cool stories like this.

  11. It has never occurred to me not to pray for a sick child. I have definitely felt inspired on what to do for my own health and the health of my children…with wonderful results. gifts of healing are a gift of the spirit. I’ve always assumed it was more related to the light of Christ and the creative power I connect with that. I’ve never seen it as instead of the priesthood, or thought I needed the priesthood for it. Normally I kinda save the priesthood for the big things-because dad’s not always home…but I’m already praying up to and through that.

  12. A couple of stories..of course.. My grandmother who lived in a small town in ID said that in the late 1920s when she was pregnant with her last child her RS presidency came by to visit and asked her if they could leave her with a blessing. They laid their hands upon her head and gave her one of comfort and support before she was to deliver her baby. She said it was the last time that she ever remembered females blessing her and was of great comfort to her. It sounded very natural to do so.

    This one is similar to #10 My mom, who has been a widow for 15+ yrs, said that she both felt and saw the evilest spirits come into her bedroom one evening while she was getting ready for bed. She announced, “In the name of the priesthood which my husband holds, I command you to leave.” Immediately they were gone. She said she had no more fear and went to bed and slept peacefully until morning. (I might have been a little more freaked out & stayed with friends.)

    I told her if we could do it this way, I would now use this for everything. She said it wouldn’t work for me since my husband is still living. I could invoke my dad’s PH since he’s dead though, right? Not everyday, just in emergencies as needed. However, seems to go against what Pres. Snow counseled.

  13. kc, that makes a lot of sense as RS women were still commonly blessing other women in the 1920. JFS’s long general circular on the topic supporting the practice was written in 1914.

    Regarding invoking shared priesthood, that is a fairly recent innovation, and one which is derived in part from the lexical shifts in priesthood terminology. Historically, women have had the authority to cast out devils and heal the sick by virtue of their church membership. No priesthood required. The idea of shared priesthood comes from an acontextual expansion of temple language. I have seen this commonly invoked in the modern church on the folk level, so it does appear to be filling a need. I’d like to get a better handle on how these beliefs are maintained in the current church.

  14. Perhaps Lorenzo was well aware of Eliza’s healing practices, but was supporting (or instituting) a preference for it being done by priesthood holders. Since it was only three years before the JSF statement, it may already have been a point of discussion among the Brethren.

  15. I’ve started reading your series. In the article “Femeale Rtual Healing in Mormonism,” you mentioned another article, “5Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “The Forms and the Power: The Development of Mormon Ritual Healing to 1847.” Can you give me a link to where I might be able to download it? I’m so grateful for you and Kristine’s continued work and dedication regarding this important work.

  16. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks Ruth, you can access it here.

    Morrid, I think that is right. Lorenzo was certainly aware of his sister’s activities. How well aware of the liturgical history is something I’m unable to speak to. However, I think that there was certainly a divrsity of opinion among church leaders (as there has ever been).

  17. thank your,

  18. that’s supposed to be thank you! ;)

  19. kc, I like the story you told about your grandma in the 1920’s. It seems natural and right to me. ( Whatever that amounts to.) The story with your mom having to use her dead husbands priesthood power makes me feel ill. What if he was alive, but not home? What if she had never been married? Would she be stuck with unwanted overnight guests? Looks like she didn’t really need the “priesthood power” to get rid of them. It just makes me sad. Thank you for sharing though. I really like the story with your grandmother.

  20. 11, lessonNumberOne, Of course we pray, but if your child had died after all your most sincere, ardent prayers and fasting, would you have thought, ” If only someone with the priesthood had given her a blessing, would she have lived?”
    Would she have? Is the priesthood power blessing more powerful than the prayers of loving, desperate mothers? Would it make a difference to god? “Oh, she doesn’t have the “priesthood” so I’m gonna let her kid die. Too bad. If only the Priesthood had gotten there, then things would be different.”
    Sorry, I’m really struggling here. I want to be saved, but sometimes I just feel like letting go.

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