Thanks to J. Stapley for his post contributing to Women’s History Month here at the Juvenile Instructor.
It has been a year or so since the article on female ritual healing that Kristine and I wrote was published (available here). In that time I have continued to gather sources relating to the topic as I come across them. Without looking particularly hard (once you start looking, references are ubiquitous), I have gathered seventy-four more examples and added them to the database. In the last couple weeks, however, I have found two that are fairly unique.
These two texts were both written by non-Mormon women for popular audiences. The first, published in 1856 as part of a travelogue and exposé, was written by Cornelia Ferris, the wife of the Territorial Secretary in the early 1850s. It was published as a compilation of her letters and is saturated with loathing. The second text is from a novel written by Susan Ertz, entitled The Proselyte, in which an English women falls in love with a missionary and travels to Utah during the pioneer era. It is more sympathetic and was published in 1933.
I think that both of these outsiders’ views of Mormon women engaging in healing ritual are really quite interesting. Ferris describes an April 5, 1853 meeting of the Council of Health. This group started in the 1850s as a sort discussion group focusing on botanic medical therapies, matters of hygiene, and apparently also to administer to the sick. Ferris derides the proceedings of a meeting she visits and in doing so includes some tremendously valuable information. For example, she includes the only transcript of which I am aware of Mormon glossolalia. It appears that she is writing in caricature; nevertheless, still important at least in gauging how outsiders viewed this stuff. After the first description of glossolalia and translation by a Sister Sessions [Patty? It wasn’t in her diary for that day, though], Ferris describes the administration for the sick:
One woman had a daughter present, who was badly afflicted with scrofula, and expressed a wish to have the remedy applied. The sisters crowded around, and, with the two brothers, laid their right hands upon her, and prayed very much like the Catholics repeating their Aves and Pater Nosters over their beads. Dr. Sprague was then moved by the spirit to bless the patient in an unknown tongue, pronouncing, in a blatant tone, words something like these: “Vavi, vava, vavum—sere, seri, sera, serum.” The same sister, who had already acted as interpreter, gave the meaning to these oracular utterances. They proved to be the invocation of great blessings, both temporal and spiritual; she was to have everything that heart could desire; her seed was to outnumber the hosts of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Poor thing, she looked as though she needed some better guaranty for temporal comforts than these empty sounds. She could not have been over eighteen; had a large baby in her lap and another child at home; was poorly clad, and undoubtedly half fed. (1)
Though it might seem strange to those only familiar with the modern Mormon healing liturgy, it is entirely consistent with the period. Here we have a collaborative healing ritual; both men and women gather to lay hands on the sick. And in a practice that doesn’t last long into the twentieth century, they repeat the words of the prayer-blessing as it is delivered. We also see a healing blessing delivered in tongues, something else that is fairly widely documented into the twentieth century. That a woman would have attended such a meeting with her daughter (and granddaughter) is also a wonderful example of how, in these sorts of ritual experiences, family and community are conflated. Ferris’ invocation of catholic practice was to further malign the Mormons, as anti-Papistry was good sport at the time.
In contrast, Ertz’s treatment of Mormonism was written with no first-hand knowledge of the pioneer life. I imagine that she read the tell-alls that were popular fair in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. And while her topic might seem ripe for a Trapped by the Mormons type of story, she was apparently more interested in a sympathetic portrayal. Speaking in General Conference the year that the book was published, Levi Edgar Young described the visit of Ertz to Salt Lake City about a year before:
I had the pleasure of taking Miss Ertz about the city and bringing her to this building where she heard an organ recital. It was an impressive hour. Miss Ertz has written a great novel based on the trek of the Mormon pioneers to the far West. In her story the hardships and sorrows of the people are clearly portrayed; and she tells of the great truths of colonizing the West, and pays high tribute to the pioneers of this State.
Ertz was a fairly well regarded author, but The Proselyte doesn’t quite hit the mark of great literature. Still, her description of one healing in particular is quite wonderful, I think:
She had come from Illinois, and it was said that she had been sealed as a spiritual wife to Joseph Smith, a marriage to be made complete only in the life after death. She was a big, powerful woman of between sixty and sixty-five, with a square, harsh-featured face and a mouth fiercely determined and grim, only the kindly sparkle in her black eyes saving the whole from an expression at once witch-like and fanatical. Her “administering” consisted of anointing the body with pure olive oil that had been blessed and consecrated, and as she rubbed it in with her skillful, powerful hands, great benefit was derived from it, and it seemed to put new life into Joseph and knit his weak body together. (2)
There is the whiff of disdain—”witch-like” and “fanatical”—however, by this time, Divine Healing had been around for decades as a popular feature of various Protestant groups and perhaps allowed for views of healing that were more tolerable. Perhaps this amenability to healing ritual more generally tempered her characterization—”kindly sparkle”—or perhaps it just made for better literature. Like Ferris, Ertz describes aspects of the Latter-day Saint liturgy that are incongruous with modern practice. Only a few decades before Ertz published this account, it was still common to anoint the entire body of the afflicted. And massaging the oil onto parts of the body is documented in other accounts.
While it is clear that Ferris is consciously constructing the Mormon woman as other in the hope of abolishing the culture, I don’t think that a treatment of the same period 80 years later could be construed to doing the same. I don’t know that Ertz was threatened the same way as Ferris; Mormon women simply didn’t have a part of her life in parlored England. Regardless, these accounts are wonderful descriptions of lived Mormonism and with luck, perhaps we will find more. I would be particularly curious to compare these to accounts by non-Mormon men.
- Mrs. B. G. Ferris, The Mormons at Home; with some Incidents of Travel from Missouri to California, 1852-3, in a Series of Letters (New York: Dix & Edwards, 1856), 203-204.
- Susan Ertz, The Proselyte (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1933), 161.