Gender and Consecrated Oil

By May 10, 2011

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

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Material history. Gender analysis. Ritual studies. These are a few of my favorite things.

    Wonderful post, Kris.

    Comment by Ben — May 10, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

  2. Awesome. Thank you for encouraging the shift from text to material culture in studying Mormonism! And, gender as performance? What a concept….

    Comment by Liz — May 10, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

  3. Wonderful stuff, Kris. I love Smart’s use of consecrated oil (and his fasting and praying practices as well). I’m interested in your unpacking of the Grant excerpt. What is he saying about manhood?

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 10, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

  4. Cool. Can’t wait for the rest.

    Comment by Emily — May 10, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

  5. Great. Is the tie between priestliness (and the figural beard) and masculinity important here?

    Comment by smb — May 10, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

  6. Kris, this is great stuff. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — May 10, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

  7. Yay Kris! Is this William H. Smart or another?

    Comment by Tod Robbins — May 10, 2011 @ 11:39 pm

  8. Awesome, Kris. So does the Mormon lay priesthood present unique avenues for the development of masculinity in American culture? I’m not familiar enough with how the “priesthood of all believers” works and how that differed from our universal (white, male) priesthood of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to hazard a guess here. Were other protestants extending the ability to anoint for health to all believers/males, etc.?

    Comment by David G. — May 11, 2011 @ 8:41 am

  9. Excellent post, Kris! Also, nice article in the Salt Lake Trib:

    Comment by Elisabeth — May 11, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

  10. Great post, Kris.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 14, 2011 @ 3:48 pm


Recent Comments

Edje Jeter on What to Expect When: “Great comments, y'all.”

Jeff T on What to Expect When: “Thanks, Edje! In case anyone else is as unorganized as me: the conference hotel doesn't have any more rooms at the MHA rate ($122 per night),…”

Ardis on What to Expect When: “I see the First Timers’ Breakfast is on the schedule this year, which is another place to break the ice, have questions answered, and recognize…”

Curtis C on What to Expect When: “Thanks for the great writeup! I've always wanted to attend MHA, but never seemed to have the time to do it. Now that it's in…”

acw on What to Expect When: “Thanks for this thorough and inspiring intro! I hope to make it one of these years.”

matt b on Review: Bergera, ed., CONFESSIONS: “Thanks folks - and especially to Gary for chiming in! As to the Hunter caption, I agree that it's factually accurate; of course, though, the facts…”