A Gift Given, A Gift Gone Underground: Thoughts on April 28, 2016

By April 28, 2016

March 2004

I attend a LDS Homemaking Meeting and bring a book that I am reading with me. It is an older volume on the teachings of Joseph Smith. I share a quote that has left me perplexed:

Respecting the female laying on hands, he further remark?d, there could be no devil in it if God gave his sanction by healing? that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water? that it is no sin for anybody to do it that has faith, or if the sick has faith to be heal?d by the administration

Nobody has ever heard of this before. None of us know how to make sense of it. I leave unsatisfied, with more questions than answers.

October 2005

I am reading Betina Lindsey?s ?Women as Healers in the Modern Church?:

When I was twelve years old, my father was rapidly deteriorating from Lou Gehrig?s disease. He slept downstairs and one night I felt prompted by an inner voice to go downstairs. I didn?t but the next morning my mother called me awake ? and told me he had quit breathing and was dying. I ran down to sit with him while she called the family and Bishop. Somehow I felt I could do something about it. I held his hand in mine and sincerely prayed as best as a twelve-year old can. After a moment his eyes opened and he looked at me and asked, “What did you do? My lungs lifted and I could breathe again.” He said he?d been fighting to live all night and felt like he should give up. It was a very humbling thing and we both knew that the spirit had worked through me. A few months later, he did die, but we were all better prepared for it by then. I hadn?t labelled it as a healing blessing until years later when I was listening to a lecture about experiences like this in the church. I?ve always felt a need to heal the hurts of others. I would like to have the option to use that power, but I?m not sure what makes it OK to caIl on it.

I share the story with a friend. For the first time, she realizes that she has healed her son. In her patriarchal blessing, she had been told that she had the gift of healing. She recalled a time several years ago, that she prayed desperately for her toddler son who had pneumonia. Her husband was away, home teachers had been called in to administer, but he was not getting better. Alone, she placed the boy on the bed and prayed, keeping her hands on his chest to make sure he was still breathing. He miraculously improved. Until hearing this account, she had never connected the spiritual gift that was identified in her blessing with that experience, thinking it was the earlier blessing of the priesthood holders.

June 2009

A LDS man shares that over the seven years he served as a bishop, a handful of women came into his office, to discuss their ability to heal. They don?t know what to do with it, they don?t want to do anything wrong.

January 2011

Jonathan Stapley and I publish an article on female healing in the Journal of Mormon History. In almost every conversation I have about this topic, someone asks, ?Why did it end?? I try to describe some of the many forces that lead to the cessation of the practice of Mormon women healing.

April 2016

I have come to the conclusion that the problem with ?How did it end?? type questions with regard to female healing is that they reflect a bias that defines religion solely as theology, doctrine and policy. It ultimately focuses upon the hierarchical (male) decision making processes and not the lived religious experience of Mormon women. It misses what Robert Orsi has described as the ?everyday miracles ? the earthy and quotidian? in favour of policies and manuals. It overlooks a world where women exist as hidden healers; often the gift of healing that literally lies at their fingertips is unused, accidentally discovered or serves as a source of confusion or guilt. Like Mormon women in the 19th century, these gifts were often identified, even authorized in patriarchal blessings. Church members and historians have debated (and will continue to debate) the issue of female healing. Indeed, Joseph Smith?s remarks on April 28, 1842 seem to flow from this debate. However, when the discussion circles around priesthood authority, keys and power as well as how church leaders defended or questioned the practice, academics miss a central point ? how do believers with a spiritual gift experience their religious world when they are officially forbidden to use it? Some have hypothesized that the gift of healing was taken away or abandoned by women. I would submit that there is considerable evidence to suggest that female healing did not ?end?; it simply went underground in both a conscious and unconscious manner. So far underground that issues of memory and historical forgetfulness hid it from view and presented LDS women with a paradigm that ultimately re-framed their understanding of healing and the gendering of spiritual gifts. Perhaps future studies will be more inclusive and move away from solely understanding healing as a top-down phenomenon that is defined from the pulpit and seek to explore the practice and lived religion of Mormon women who have the gift of healing.(1)


(1) Betina Lindsey’s “Women as Healers in the Modern Church” is a great place to start and contains excerpts of interviews done with several women who understand themselves as having the gift of healing.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Holy amazingness…. this is amazing. That last paragraph. I remember being in a Relief Society a few years when a woman told the story about praying over her sick child, apologized for how that sounded like she was using priesthood.

    Comment by EmJen — April 28, 2016 @ 11:47 am

  2. Yes, yes, yes! Thank you Kris.

    Here’s a link to Betina’s article, which is the most correct and complete version, according to Betina. http://signaturebookslibrary.org/women-and-authority-19/

    Comment by Maxine H. — April 28, 2016 @ 12:42 pm

  3. I want to say Amen to every word in your last paragraph. Do you have any ideas of what it would look like to reverse the top-down direction of healing, given that it seems like many women lack the vocabulary to talk about their experiences?

    Comment by Saskia — April 28, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

  4. In about 1980 I was at the SL Institute of Religion, with a group of other “older” LDS women reentering college. We were probably eating lunch, as I recall, and the conversation turned to women giving blessing. Someone asked if any of us had had any experience with women giving blessing. We all looked around quite gingerly and then EVERY hand in our group went up. It was a startling moment. We then shared our individual experiences.

    About 20 years before that my Dad (who was about as patriarchal and chauvinistic as it was possible to be) told me about women giving blessings. He was very positive about it. He said his mother had been set apart to give blessings. This was all news to me at the time, and frankly I wasn’t comfortable with the idea. I had never seen this done. It turns out my Mother, without pioneer background and who thoroughly hated RS, and was oh so “modern”, had refused to participate, even when my Dad invited her.

    Comment by Marjorie Conder — April 28, 2016 @ 1:13 pm

  5. “it simply went underground in both a conscious and unconscious manner”

    This is a profound insight, Kris.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 28, 2016 @ 1:18 pm

  6. Goosebumps. Thank you for this.

    Comment by Kristine A — April 28, 2016 @ 1:22 pm

  7. Oh, and happy April 28th to all of us!

    Comment by Marjorie Conder — April 28, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

  8. Great, KW. Last semester as I taught about women and the gift of healing in Church History classes I had many many more questions that I have had in previous semesters. Questions about both the possibility and the authority and the efficacy. Some attached to personal experiences. Really interesting questions. I’m interested to know what has changed–gospel topics essays making it feel safe to discuss? I don’t know, but am really interested in seeing if that happens again this semester….

    Comment by JJohnson — April 28, 2016 @ 2:18 pm

  9. Fara Sneddon is currently working on a book all about Mormon Women and blessings. She has done extensive research on this subject and I cannot wait to read what she produces!!

    Comment by Kirsten — April 28, 2016 @ 2:42 pm

  10. I have benefited from several LDS female healers while recovering from a concussion. They are trained in different disciplines and all maintain a connection to God in their work. I think there is a resurgence among LDS women who exercise the healing arts, with God making a way for their training and for this knowledge to be shared more widely. I feel we are entering an era in human history when it will be important for these women to know how to be the healers of many.

    Comment by Liz — April 28, 2016 @ 2:56 pm

  11. Nice insight, Kris. This reminds me of exorcism in American Catholicism (I’m thinking of Michael Cuneo’s book). This feels like a topic for oral histories!

    Comment by Jeff T — April 28, 2016 @ 3:40 pm

  12. Thank you for this article. Possibly the most spiritual experience of my life was a healing prayer given by my grandmother. After one of the darkest moments of my life, my grandmother had taken myself and my siblings away from my parents. After a night of being surrounded by a literal hell on earth, my younger siblings and I kneeled around a bed at my grandmothers. My grandfather was out of town. I was a 15 year old active, Aaronic Priesthood holder. My Grandmother began to pray and called upon the heavens to protect us, to give us peace, for angels to be with us and for our souls to heal. I’m tearing up just writing this 30 years later. I have never felt peace and the love of my Heavenly Father as strongly as I did that night, after that healing prayer. It wasn’t until years later that I realized this just wasn’t a prayer, it was a healing blessing. Physically we weren’t sick but our minds and souls needed healing. My siblings and I received it that night. Women giving healing blessings has not stopped, they continue despite policy and manuals.

    Comment by Delux — April 28, 2016 @ 4:00 pm

  13. Phenomenal.

    Comment by Ben P — April 28, 2016 @ 5:42 pm

  14. When I was a teenager in the 70’s, newly active in the church, I was taught (in church!) that it was perfectly acceptable for women to give blessings in times of need with no priesthood around. As I raised my family, I was both grateful for my husband’s priesthood and the many blessings he gave to me and to our kids and also grateful to be able to lay my hands ob my sick kids or sick mom, in the middle of the night, in a moment of crisis, whenever, and pray for their healing. I loved and read Carol Lynn Pearson’s book on this subject (Daughter’s of Light?) and it taught me well.

    Comment by Amanda — April 28, 2016 @ 7:41 pm

  15. In my mission, when we knocked on doors we would always offer to leave a blessing in the home of those we met. While the elders left this blessing in the name of their priesthood, we sisters gave the blessings in virtue of our calling as missionaries. They weren’t necessarily “healing” blessings but they were always accompanied by the power of the Spirit.

    Comment by Kelli — April 28, 2016 @ 8:56 pm

  16. I’ve been blessing my children and others for decades. I look forward to a time when women and others are fully acknowledged for their gifts, power, authority. We all know who the “prayer warriors” are in our ward/neighborhood communities. Why not the healers?

    Then again, perhaps part of the power is in the privacy, the sanctuary of the underground. Time will tell.

    Thank you for this beautiful post! And thanks to you, Fara Sneddon, and others for unearthing our history. God bless.

    Comment by melodynew — April 28, 2016 @ 9:04 pm

  17. Thank you, Kris

    Comment by Barbara — April 28, 2016 @ 11:43 pm

  18. Your summary of a church that focuses on theology and belief rather than religious experience resonates with me and reflects the premise of this fascinating book: http://www.amazon.com/Future-Faith-Harvey-Cox/dp/0061755532/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1461910572&sr=8-1&keywords=future+of+faith

    From review: “He divides Christian history into three periods: the Age of Faith, during the first Christian centuries, when the earliest followers of Jesus lived in his Spirit, embraced his hope and followed him in the work he had begun; the Age of Belief, from the Council of Nicaea to the late 20th century, during which the church replaced faith in Jesus with dogma about him; and the Age of the Spirit, in which we’re now living, in which Christians are rediscovering the awe and wonder of faith in the tremendous mystery of God.”

    To think there is an Age of the Spirit in Mormonism today would be so exciting!

    Comment by Wendy Chapman — April 29, 2016 @ 12:19 am

  19. Deny not the gifts of God.

    Comment by LisaT — April 29, 2016 @ 7:11 am

  20. Healing by the grace of God can occur through faith and/or the priesthood. Healing faith can be exerted by anyone. Healing through the priesthood can only be done by holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood.

    As in all things, we should do the best we can. If two priesthood holders are not available for a health blessing, one will suffice. If no priesthood holders are available, a prayer of faith will suffice.

    The Joseph Smith quote at the beginning of this thread is in the Documentary History of the Church and Joseph Fielding Smith included it in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1938 and it is available in any LDS bookstore today. I think it would be hard to call this a secret, or underground, or abandoned.

    I worry that some might think this is a priesthood versus women wedge issue. It is not. Actually, an effort to exercise healing faith with a contentious attitude probably won’t produce the desired outcome. A loving mother exercising faith to heal her sick child when no priesthood is available is noble and holy and respected by the Lord.

    Comment by Trueblue — April 29, 2016 @ 9:25 am

  21. Trueblue, I think you missed the entire point of the post. You?re not paying attention to what Kris said about it going ?underground,? nor did she ever call it a secret or abandoned. In fact, on the last point, she?s arguing the opposite.

    But thank you for your sanctimonious explanation of your interpretation of healing blessings to the author, who has written award-winning articles on the topic that you?re mansplaining to her.

    Comment by Brother X — April 29, 2016 @ 12:25 pm

  22. I’m not sure what the difference is between a healing recovery that comes through virtue of the priesthood or by prayer of faith by the healer. I’ve asked this question of many leaders and no one has a substantive answer. Both pray in faith. Ultimately it depends on the faith of the individual and the will of God. But are spiritual gifts substantially different from priesthood power? Both operate in this context by the power of God. Ostensibly one is more authoritative if the power of the priesthood is properly harnessed? That’s not evident to me given what the scriptures state.

    I think we lack clarity and we truly don’t understand the place of faith vs priesthood in this context.

    Comment by Eponymous — April 29, 2016 @ 1:04 pm

  23. I think there are a few people who are misunderstanding the nature of this post. The point I had hoped to make is that when we study history only in terms of decision-makers and policies, we neglect the lived religious experience of believers. Of course, one can say that for all intents and purposes, female healing ended in the early twentieth century, or more correctly that it was no longer sanctioned by church leadership. I suspect that a good portion of people did their best to abide by those policies. But it would seem that many Mormon women continued (and continue) to experience healing as agents,not just as recipients (see Marjorie’s post above for example.) The anecdotes that I include in the narrative, hopefully illustrate the complexities of belief.

    Comment by Kris — April 29, 2016 @ 1:36 pm

  24. Eponymous, yes spiritual gifts are substantially different and completely independent from priesthood authority. Any spiritual gift, including the gift of healing, could be possessed by anyone regardless of priesthood. Joseph Smith is an example of someone who had many spiritual gifts before ever receiving the priesthood or even being baptized or receiving the gift of the holy ghost. Someone with the gift of healing need not invoke any authority to heal another because it is a gift they possess – like a talent or an innate ability. I don’t really understand how it is used to heal though because I don’t possess that gift. The priesthood does not have the power, gift, or keys of healing and someone cannot heal another person simply by virtue of priesthood authority. However, the authority to perform ordinances does reside with the priesthood and so blessings as an ordinance have become limited to those with the priesthood. The priesthood may have the authority for the ordinance but not the power to actually heal.

    Comment by DB — April 29, 2016 @ 2:02 pm

  25. Whenever I give my kids healing blessings, I always have my wife hold them and pluralize the language to say “we”. My hands go on the head, her hands go where it hurts.

    Made the decision to do this after reading Quinn’s work on women and the priesthood years ago. Best decision ever!!!

    Comment by More man — April 29, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

  26. Outstanding stuff.

    Do I sense a coming dissertation, Kris?

    Comment by Patrick M — April 29, 2016 @ 4:57 pm

  27. What a great article! It made me so happy. When I had learned that women used to give healing blessings in the past and then were told to stop, I was saddened. I felt like something had been removed from them. That’s why I was so glad to read that women do give healing blessings nowadays.

    Comment by Sara — April 29, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

  28. DB, you missed my point. Healing can be accomplished by prayer, by a spiritual gift or by the power of the priesthood.

    I’ve read the Handbooks pretty thoroughly and nowhere does it state that a healing blessing is an ordinance. Even Elder Oaks concedes that healing through the prayer of faith is sufficient:

    “We know that the prayer of faith, uttered alone or in our homes or places of worship, can be effective to heal the sick.”

    Again, in the context of healing there is no substantive difference between faith, a spiritual gift and priesthood. All 3 have the potential for the same outcome.

    Comment by Eponymous — April 29, 2016 @ 8:54 pm

  29. Eponymous, please take a look at Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood, Part B lesson 5. Yes, administering to the sick is a priesthood ordinance. Using the gift of healing is not an ordinance. No, I don’t believe I missed your point. I answered your question, but you just didn’t agree with the answer.

    Comment by DB — May 2, 2016 @ 6:06 am


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