Female healing and non-Mormon women

By March 13, 2012

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.


  1. 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.
  2. Susan Ertz, The Proselyte (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1933), 161.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. […] 1893-94 diary here and here.  I?m also looking forward to today?s post by Jonathan Stapley here, which gives us some more findings on his ongoing important research regarding Mormon women?s […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » March Madness: Recovering our Past through Women’s History Month and Relief Society Birthday Parties — March 13, 2012 @ 11:02 am

  2. Jonathan, well done and fascinating as usual! When I teach my Mormon women’s history seminar, the students are often more curious about Mormon women’s healing rituals than anything else, and troubled by their decline. And as they work through the realities of women’s lives in the 19th century, I’ve had some female students in particular who struggle more with the loss of women’s healing power over time than even polygamy. Your research is so vital for bringing attention to, not only rituals where women healed other women, but where men and women together healed others, and where women healed men. Even these fictional portrayals can help us recover a history of the possibilities of shared gender terrain in the Church.

    On another note, I am fascinated by this 1850s Council of Health that you mention. Do you see this as some kind of forerunner to later institutions like the Deseret Women’s Hospital and the Relief Society Nurses Training program? It would be interesting to trace a consistent thread of LDS women’s “medical” sphere back to the 1850s, outside of the usual midwifery activities.

    Again, such great work!

    Comment by andrearm — March 13, 2012 @ 11:57 am

  3. Thanks Andrea. And I agree that the collaborative and cross gender healing and blessing is an area that needs to be explored more. Not a lot has been written about the Council of Health. It appears to have been started by prominant Thomsonian physicians, namely Willard Richards, but also supported by Philo Dibble and others. Patty Sessions and other prominent midwives were involved and were set apart by Richards. The CHL has at least some minutes for the “Female Council of Health” during this period, which I have yet to access and which indicate that women took perhaps a leading role in its continuance. I also agree that this is an area that needs more work. I recently read a report of a series of 1890s lessons on female anatomy, hygiene and health that were fabulous. It is clear that this was a terribly important feature of Latterday Saint life.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 13, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

  4. A couple of nice finds, J. Since you say that Ferris gives the only transcript of Mormon glossolalia, I assume that you must not count as credible Mark Twain’s somewhat comic description in Roughing It.

    Comment by kevinf — March 13, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

  5. Thanks kevinf. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were other transcripts around, and it has been years since I have read the literature, so I was going off of memory of my research notes, but you have got me on Twain. I haven’t read that book (shameful, I know).

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 13, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

  6. J, I have a copy of that book at home, so I will try and dig it out and provide a transcript here. If I recall, while not exactly G rated, it is at least PG-13. Twain was giving an account of a church meeting in the old tabernacle, so not related to healing, just glossolalia.

    Comment by kevinf — March 13, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

  7. Thanks for the fun update J! Amazing so many more resources have popped up since the original publication.

    Comment by Emily — March 13, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

  8. Excellent. As you know I’m interested in rites of affliction as a category, with an emphasis on exorcistic practices, so I find that reading your material on healing is really fruitful. Thanks for the post.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 13, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

  9. I love the way you find value and demonstrate pattern in sources that are separated by time and tone and genre. That your topic concerns women who are actively conducting religious ritual, not standing by as passive observers, is a special bonus to me at the moment.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 13, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

  10. Emily, it really is amazing how common this stuff is. It is good to see you around.

    Taysom, I shot you an email with a document that may have some sources of interest.

    Thanks Ardis.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 13, 2012 @ 6:09 pm

  11. Fantastic, J.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — March 13, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

  12. This is lovely. I admit that I was shocked to read this was the first account of glossolalia you’d encountered; every time I think I have a basic grasp of Mormonism I am proved wrong. I understand it’s well beyond the scope of this post but how does that square with the 7th Article of Faith? It is affirmed but not practiced? Rather, I understood that it was no longer a current church practice but was it always marginal, as this post suggests?

    Comment by crazywomancreek — March 13, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

  13. Great stuff, J. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — March 13, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

  14. #12 – I’m sorry for not being more clear. I don’t know how many accounts of glossolalia or xenoglossia I have read…many hundreds at least. But this is the only transcript of the words spoken that I can remember.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 13, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

  15. Fantastic work!

    Do you have any sense if Ertz ever wrote about non-Mormo glossolalia? I wonder if her account would have been influenced at all by the Pentecostalism then on the rise in Southern California or by other religious traditions that had adopted the practice.

    Comment by Amanda HK — March 13, 2012 @ 8:45 pm

  16. Amanda, I am not familiar with Ertz’s broader corpus. She hits Mormon glossolalia on p. 20 of The Proselyte, though.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 13, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

  17. Great stuff J.

    Comment by WVS — March 13, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

  18. Fascinating, J. Thank you very much.

    Comment by meems — March 14, 2012 @ 9:35 am

  19. Divine healing is alive and well in third world countries, where healers and shamans are mostly (gasp) women. Maybe women simply don’t need the priesthood.

    Comment by Bradley — March 18, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

  20. Jonathan – terrific update! Mrs. Ferris’s account is also a first for me of seeing a transcript of the actual words of an instance of glossolalia. (TANGENT: My father, an ex-Mormon Pentecostal Christian, finally got me to attend his church’s Foursquare worship service after begging me for months. This was in the late 1980s and I could speak four languages fairly well by then. During the service, a man got up and spoke in glossolalia. He used the following phrase four times, as far as I can recall: “Vish midibeesh ehshah shah elnah”. A woman then stood and gave an interpretation. After the service, my father proudly asked me what I thought of the experience. I asked him why the man had repeated that lengthy phrase four times but the woman’s interpretation included no repetitions of any phrase or sentence. He never asked me to church again.)

    BTW, Mrs. Ferris also reported an earlier instance of glossolalia at the same meeting during which Dr. Sprague spoke in tongues. Ferrish reports that Susannah Lippincot Richards (a “spiritual wife” of Dr. Willard Richards) said, ?Eli, ele, elo, ela ? come, coma, como ? reli, rele, rela, relo ? sela, selo, sele, selum,” which she repeated twice or thrice. (Ferris gives no interpretation.)

    The more I learn about the Female Council of Health (organized on September 17, 1851), the more I’m fascinated by it. Mary Ann Angell Young’s mother, Phebe, was the first President, with Patty Sessions and Susannah Liptrot Richards as her counselors. The women’s Council was half of the Utah Territorial Council of Health, which had begun in February 1850. Both were predominantly Thomsonian, although non-Thomsonians, like Augusta Adams Cobb Young (Brigham’s third wife) and Dr. Jeter Clinton participated initially. Augusta, who did not like Patty Sessions, reported in several letters to Brigham about the questionable actions of the Councils of Health.

    In one example, an agitated Augusta wrote that during the October 1, 1851 meeting “the women acted like preists [sic] of Bael when their gods was touched” but left the subject in Brigham’s “hands to dispose of according to the wisdom God shall give you and may you be directed in this”.

    Augusta was particularly opposed to the Thomsonian emetic panacea of Lobelia. She felt that simply vomiting was not a very healing practice for many illnesses, and advocated a triple approach of MILD herbal remedies, “consecrated oil”, and whatever “the Spiret of the Lord may dictate.”

    Her insubordination drew the wrath of the Female Council’s presidency (especially Sessions it appears) and Augusta was put on trial for her membership in the Council on October 29, 1851. Augusta then wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the charges on November 4 (which is unfortunately incredibly difficult to read because of the faintness of the ink) but she emphasized that she was only standing up for her principles as there was “no subject I feel more deeply interested in than the proper adaptation of medecine to the different diseases that afflict the human family.” She also demanded that she be tried before her husband, Pres. Young, or Dr. Willard Richards (of the First Presidency), or be “honorably acquited”. Still, the Presidency of the Female Council of Health “cut sister Cob off from the counsel” on November 12, 1851, per Patty Sessions published journal (p. 169).

    The belligerent Augusta continued to attend the joint male-female Council meetings, but was horrified that on November 20, Patty Sessions set her sights on Dr. Jeter Clinton (a high ranking LDS leader) as a “dead branch more than dead rotten.” But Augusta thought “the rotteness is in Mother Sessions” while Dr. Clinton was “The Saint and Gentleman,” who “bore their Abuses in a most humble and God like Spiret.” Augusta was moved to stand during the meeting and witness her support of the doctor, but she was accused of being employed by Clinton “to come and help him,” which she vehemently denied to Brigham.

    Clinton was then also cut off from the Council of Health and the acrimony surrounding the Council’s actions grew so much that finally Brigham was constrained to attend their meeting on December 10, 1851. Although he spoke for two hours, the Deseret News did not report even the gist of his message, and I have yet to find any other report of his words as well. I wonder if he came down in support of the Thomsonian faction or if he sided with his wife Augusta (with whom he had a stormy and unpleasant relationship, although they never divorced.)

    With her loss in standing as a healer, Augusta then was forced to become a domestic servant to support herself and her daughter Charlotte. This humiliation was only deepened by the fact that, as she complained to Brigham, she believed her employer, identified only as “Mrs. G.” was in fact of mixed race and bore “the blood of Cain” in her veins. This made Augusta “a servant to servants”. Hell hath no fury like a bigot under-employed.

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — March 19, 2012 @ 12:49 am

  21. Er…that’s Susannah Liptrot Richards, not Lippincott (although Ferris gives her name thusly).

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — March 19, 2012 @ 12:51 am

  22. Connell, thanks for that tremendously insightful comment. I can’t wait for your volume on Augusta to be published.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 19, 2012 @ 8:08 am

  23. A little late to the party, but this is fascinating, J. Thank you for the update.

    Comment by Jared T — March 19, 2012 @ 5:23 pm


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