In discussions of female ritual healing, I often see people point to a 1946 letter written by Joseph Fielding Smith as the “death knell” of the practice. I don’t believe that is an accurate characterization. In this post I’m going to be highlight material that Kris and I briefly covered in our article on female healing.
The 1949 Relief Society handbook included the following text:
Care of the Sick
Care of the sick consists of service rendered without pay by an authorized representative of Relief Society to a person who is ill. The hours devoted to this service are recorded. In [pg. 83] recording care of the sick, a total of eight hours is counted as a day.
Washing and Anointing
Questions with regard to washing and anointing are occasionally referred to the general board. The following information, therefore, is included in this Handbook:
While the authorities of the Church have ruled that it is permissible, under certain conditions and with the approval of the Priesthood, for sisters to wash and anoint other sisters, yet they feel that it is far better for us to follow the plan the Lord has given us and send for the elders of the Church to come and administer to the sick and afflicted.
The service of washing and anointing is not a Relief Society function, and therefore, is not under the direction of the Relief Society. Women should not be set apart to perform this ordinance, but the presiding Priesthood authorities may determine if such an ordinance is to be performed and designate the sisters to perform it. The washing and anointing by our sisters in the past was greatly abused and improperly done, and for this reason, as well as for the reason that the Lord has given by revelation the order for the administration of those who are sick or in need of a blessing the washing and anointing by the sisters has not been encouraged.
(Relief Society, Handbook of the Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (Salt Lake City, Utah: General Board of Relief Society, 1949), 82-83.)
According to History of the Relief Society 1842-1966 (Salt Lake City, UT: The General Board of the Relief Society, 1966), 99, the handbooks printed between 1949 to 1966 were all the same being based on the 1931 handbook issued by the Relief Society Board, but prepared by Amy Brown Lyman and Annie Wells Cannon. There is however, no mention of administering to the sick in the 1931 edition. According to the History of the Relief Society 1824-1966, “This Handbook has now been revised and brought up to date preparatory to publication under the Church Correlation Program.” This new 1968 Handbook has no mention of the ritual.
When James R. Clark prepared the First Presidency circulars that affirmed female participation in the healing liturgy as part of his Messages of the First Presidency he asked Joseph Fielding Smith what the church’s position was. Smith in turned provided him a copy of a letter from which the blockquoted material in the RS Handbook was taken. I don’t think anyone had noticed the text was the same between what Clark published and the RS Handbook. Clark published his excerpt in 1971, several years after the RS Handbook had been revised, and while Smith was still living. It is worth noting that even though the letter framed the washing and anointing for health ritual in new ways when it was written. It still allowed for, however unlikely, the ritual to continue.
Joseph Fielding Smith quoted his father in the 1950s church periodical saying that it was “no uncommon thing” for a father and mother to bless their children together. He also quoted Joseph Smith’s April 28, 1842 revelatory sermon on the topic. I understand that the 1946 letter, which was originally written to the general RS Presidency, did position healing by women in an unfavored light. It was written thirty some years after his father’s general circular on the topic which heartily endorsed female participation in the liturgy. A lot had changed in those decades; still, it was hardly the coup de grace.