On December 11, 1917, William Smart recorded in his diary, “Wife and I are fasting today. I bathed and thoroughly then anointed myself from head to foot with consecrated oil after praying to the Father and presenting this for purpose of further cleansing and as a token to present myself clean before him.” The many entries in Smart’s diary as well as those of hundreds of others Latter-day Saints illustrate how ritual objects can be a primary form of evidence for understanding religion as lived experience and sheds light on what believers do with material things. Recently scholars have begun to note how deeply dependent religious identity and experience are on material objects and the ordinary practices of belief. Mormon history has been largely pursued as the study of texts. However, when we study religious objects as well as the practices that put such items to use, we can create a more comprehensive account of religion as a lived experience. In many ways, consecrated or holy oil can be described as a fluid that connected many aspects of early Mormon life and can be seen as a symbol for the binding of a religious community. The use of oil reveals a web of social and familial networks, concepts of gender, the connection between saving and healing liturgies and illustrates early Mormon conceptions of charismatic power, magic and salvation.Today, I would like to take a brief look at what consecrated oil reveals about gender in Mormon history.
During the 1830s oil became a conduit for the expression of priestly power; however, it was also not yet bound exclusively to one gender. While the ritual use of oil was an integral part of the female experience, Mormon concepts of masculinity became associated with the use of consecrated oil. Jedediah M. Grant preached:
When an Elder comes to administer to the sick, and is afraid of greasing his fingers, or of dropping a little oil on his vest or pants, and says, ‘O never mind the oil, there is no virtue in the olive oil; you might as well drink it as anoint with it; besides, I might grease my gloves; I will dispense with it,’ I want such a man to walk off… Let a man, when he has the right kind of faith, practise the works thereof; and when God says, ‘Anoint with oil,’ anoint; I don’t care if it runs down your beard as it ran down Aaron’s, it will not hurt you.
Similarly, Franklin D. Richards recounted a story in General Conference related to his own masculine development in the church. He declared, “Speaking of my own case, I recollect well how as we got along, there came a time when we needed some consecrated oil. I took a bottle of oil to President Young in Nauvoo, and asked him to consecrate it. He did so; and said he, “The next time you want a bottle of oil consecrated, do it yourself.” This is the way a man develops…”
While the performance of healing rituals was open to men and women, the consecration of oil was uniquely linked to the development of masculine identity and could serve as a gauge of manhood. Throughout the late 19th and 20th century, the use of consecrated oil became privatized, individualized, less embodied and distinctly male. Studying its use presents a new lens on how we can understand ideas of gender in Mormon history as both men and women were able to derive their religious identity from its use.
Next post: Some thoughts on women and consecrated oil
Good read: David Morgan, ed. Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief, 2010