Presidents Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff had all issued instructions to the Church or to the sisters of the Relief Society and the Church concerning their proper role in their ministrations to the sick. The practices mentioned in this letter of 1914 had begun in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prior to April, 1842, and had continued in the Church down to the time of this circular letter of the First Presidency, and were to continue for a brief period thereafter.
Presidents Smith, Young and Woodruff had made it clear that the practices herein enumerated were in no sense to be considered either as a priesthood function nor as a substitute for the administration to the sick by the elders of the Church as enjoined in James 5:14-15 and Doctrine and Covenants 42:44.
This practice of sisters in the Church administering to the sick through faith, but not through any priesthood authority, was more or less standard Church procedure for many years. Since it is no longer a practice in the Church, perhaps some additional historical notes on the practice will not be out of place here.
On April 28, 1842, Joseph Smith records in his history (DHC 6:602-607) that he met with the members of the newly organized "Female Relief Society and gave a lecture on the Priesthood, showing how the sisters would come in possession of the privileges, blessings, and gifts of the Priesthood, and that the signs should follow them, such as healing the sick ... and that they might attain unto these blessings by a virtuous life, and diligence in keeping all the commandments."
According to the synopsis of his remarks on that occasion, as reported by Eliza R. Snow, the Prophet Joseph Smith quoted I Corinthians 12th and 13th chapters and Mark 16:15-18. His commentary on these scriptures to the ladies of the "Female Relief Society" were, in part, as follows:
"No matter who believeth, these signs, such as healing the sick, casting out devils, etc., should follow them that believe, whether male or female. He asked the Society if they could not see by this sweeping promise, that ... if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let everything roll on. ...
"Respecting females administering for the healing of the sick, he further remarked, there could be no evil in it, if God gave His sanction by healing; that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on and praying for the sick than in wetting the face with water; it is no sin for anybody to administer that has faith, or if the sick have faith to be healed by their administrations." (DHC 4:602-604) Joseph Smith continued instructions by saying that "it was according to revelation that the sick should be nursed with herbs and mild food, and not by the hand of an enemy." (Doc. & Cov. 42:43)
This address of Joseph Smith to the Relief Society, including the instructions on administering to the sick was printed in the Woman's Exponent 13:44-55, 62 (August 15 and September 1, 1884); in the Utah Journal for April 14, 1888; the Deseret News for July 28, 1888; and was referred to in an editorial by Emmeline B. Wells in the Woman's Exponent for September 1, 1888.
It was also quoted, with comments, by Franklin D. Richards in a sermon in the Ogden Tabernacle, July 19, 1882.
President Brigham Young in addressing the women of the Church in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in 1869 said:
"Learn to take proper care of your children. If any of them are sick the cry now, instead of 'go fetch the Elders to lay hands on my child!' is, 'Run for a doctorÃÂ. '
"It is the privilege of a mother to have faith and to administer to her child; this she can do herself, as well as sending for the Elders to have the benefit of their faith."
On April 27, 1888, according to the minutes of the Relief Society, the First Presidency wrote a letter to Emmeline B. Wells, General Secretary and editor of the Woman's Exponent answering certain questions dealing with women's ministrations to the sick. Seemingly the general Presidency of the Relief Society at various times subsequently circularized these answers on the letterhead of the society and distributed them to Relief Society members. One such circular letter on Relief Society letterhead with the date line blank and carrying the postscript "Approved by the First Presidency" is reproduced below for comparison with the circular letter to the Stake Presidents and Bishops issued by the First Presidency October 3, 1914.
It is known from minutes of the Relief Society that in 1901 a copy of President Woodruff's letter of April 27, 1888, was submitted to President Lorenzo Snow and re-affirmed by him as President of the Church.
Again in 1910 a copy of President Woodruff's 1888 letter was submitted by the Relief Society General Board to President Joseph F. Smith and his counselors in the First Presidency with the request that it be circularized among Stake Presidents of the Church.
Earlier, in 1907, President Joseph F. Smith was asked the question: "Does a wife hold the priesthood with her husband and may she lay hands on the sick with him, with authority?"
President Smith's reply to this question, published in the Improvement Era (10:308, February, 1907) was as follows:
"A wife does not hold the priesthood with her husband, but she enjoys the benefits thereof with him; and if she is requested to lay hands on the sick with him, or with any other officer holding the Melchizedek Priesthood, she may do so with perfect propriety. It is no uncommon thing for a man and wife unitedly to administer to their children."
In a letter of Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, dated July 29, 1946, and addressed to the General Relief Society Presidency, Elder Smith wrote:
"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." For additional background on this subject see also Improvement Era 58:558-559, 607 (August, 1955) and Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions 1:144-150 (1957).
Reproduced below are both the letter distributed by the Relief Society (seemingly over the period from 1888-1910) carrying the postscript "Approved by the First Presidency" and the circular letter sent out over the signature of President Joseph F. Smith and his counselors under a date of October 3, 1914, to the presidents of stakes and bishops of wards.
Office of The First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Salt Lake City, Utah, October 3rd, 1914
To the Presidents of Stakes and Bishops of Wards:
Questions are frequently asked in regard to washing and anointing our sisters preparatory to their confinement. In a circular issued by the leading sisters of the Relief Society a number of questions on this matter have been answered and correct instructions given, but notwithstanding this having been done, we judge from the contents of letters received by us that there exists some uncertainty as to the proper persons to engage in this administration; we have therefore considered it necessary to answer some of these questions, and give such explanations as will place this matter in the right light. We quote some of these questions and give our answers:
1. Is it necessary for one or more sisters to be set apart to wash and anoint the sick?
2. Should it be done under the direction of the Relief Society?
Answer: Any good sister, full of faith in God and in the efficacy of prayer, may officiate. It is therefore not necessary for anyone to be set apart for this purpose, or that it should be done exclusively under the direction of the Relief Society.
3. Must the sister officiating be a member of the Relief Society?
Answer: It is conceded that most of our sisters, qualified to perform this service and gifted with the spirit of healing and the power to inspire faith in the sick, belong to the Relief Society, but if the sick should desire to have some good sister who is not a member of the Relief Society administer to her, that sister has the right to so administer.
4. Have the sisters the right to administer to sick children?
Answer: Yes; they have the same right to administer to sick children as to adults, and may anoint and lay hands upon them in faith.
5. Should the administering and anointing be sealed?
Answer: It is proper for sisters to lay on hands, using a few simple words, avoiding the terms employed in the temple, and instead of using the word "seal" use the word "confirm.
6. Have the sisters a right to seal the washing and anointing, using no authority, but doing it in the name of Jesus Christ, or should men holding the priesthood be called in?
Answer: The sisters have the privilege of laying their hands on the head of the person for whom they are officiating, and confirming and anointing in the spirit of invocation. The Lord has heard and answered the prayers of sisters in these administrations many times. It should, however, always be remembered that the command of the Lord is to call in the elders to administer to the sick, and when they can be called in, they should be asked to anoint the sick or seal the anointing.
7. Are sisters who have not received their endowments competent to wash and anoint sisters previous to confinement?
Answer: It must always be borne in mind that this administering to the sick by the sisters is in no sense a temple ordinance, and no one is allowed to use the words learned in the temple in washing and anointing the sick. Sisters who have had their endowments have received instructions and blessings which tend to give them stronger faith and especially qualify them to officiate in this sacred work; but there are good faithful sisters, who through circumstances have not received their endowments, and yet are full of faith and have had much success in ministering to the sick, who should not be forbidden to act, if desired to do so by our sisters.
In conclusion we have to say that in all sacred functions performed by our sisters there should be perfect harmony between them and the Bishop, who has the direction of all matters pertaining to the Church in his ward. Your brethren, JOSEPH F. SMITH, ANTHON H. LUND, CHARLES W. PENROSE, First Presidency.
The Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Salt Lake City, Utah —ANSWER TO QUESTIONS— The first question: "Is it necessary for one or more sisters to be set apart for that purpose? (Washing and anointing the sick, etc.) Or should it be done under the direction of the Presidency of the Relief Society, or could any good sister officiate?"
This seems to include three questions.
Firstly, our late President Sister Eliza R. Snow Smith said many times, "Any good sister who had received her endowments and was in good standing in the Church, might officiate in washing and anointing previous to confinement, if called upon, or requested to do so by the sister or sisters desiring the blessing" but should not offer her services.
Secondly, not necessarily under the direction of the Presidency of the Relief Society, although it is most likely whoever was called upon to render such services would be a member of the Relief Society in her own Ward. Some sisters are gifted in ministering and comforting with faith, and adaptability, who might not be chosen to preside or fill any official position in the Relief Society, then the sister herself who desires the blessing might have some choice as to whom she would prefer, and there are many little things [that] might be taken into consideration, all cases are not alike, all circumstances are not the same, wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit are things necessary in all such matters.
Thirdly, in reference to children in sickness, one could not always wait to consult the Presidency of the Relief Society; mothers, grandmothers, and often other relatives attend to a sick child, both in administering and in the washing with pure water and anointing with consecrated oil; but generally in neighborhoods, there are sisters who are specially adapted to minister to children, and who have in large degree the gift of healing under the influence of the Holy Spirit, who are possessed of greater humility and have cultivated the gift or whom the Lord has greatly blessed.
Second question: "Should the washing be sealed?" It is usual to do this in a few simple words, avoiding the terms used in the Temple, and instead of using the word "Seal" we would use the word "Confirm" in the spirit of invocation.
Third question: "Have the sisters a right to seal the washing and anointing, using no authority, but doing it in the name of Jesus Christ, or should men holding the Priesthood be called in?" The sisters have the privilege of laying their hands on the head of the one officiated for and confirming the anointing in the spirit of invocation, and in the name of Jesus Christ, not mentioning authority. Therefore it is not necessary to call in the Brethren. The Lord has heard and answered the prayers of the sisters in these ministrations many times.
In suggestions made in reference to washing and anointing the sisters are always advised to kneel and offer prayer previous to officiating in any sacred duty. Your sisters in the Gospel, ------------------------ General President ------------------------ General Secretary (On behalf of the Relief Society) Approved by the First Presidency of the Church.
[1914-October 3-Original circular letter. Church Historian's as quoted in Clark, James R., Messages of the First Presidency (6 volumes)]