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Wilford Woodruff, Letter to Emmeline B. Wells, April 27, 1888

Wilford Woodruff, Letter to Emmeline B. Wells, Apr. 27, 1888; four pages; CHL (MS 5825).

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In April 1888 Emmeline B. Wells, corresponding secretary to general Relief Society president Zina D. H. Young, wrote to Wilford Woodruff, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, asking him to clarify the circumstances in which Latter-day Saint women should wash and anoint other women in preparation for childbirth. The following letter is the response from Woodruff, who had served as the church’s presiding officer since the death of President John Taylor in July 1887.

Even before Joseph Smith sanctioned the practice of female healing in 1842,1 Latter-day Saint women had participated in the practice of ministering to the sick. By 1880 they had formalized a ritual preceding childbirth sometimes called “washing and anointing previous to confinement.”2 In the decades following Smith’s statements, both priesthood and Relief Society leaders had addressed the topic of female healing and its relationship to priesthood authority and temple ordinances. Church leaders stated that these women’s ministrations were performed through faith rather than priesthood authority.3

In a related vein, church members asked whether women needed to be set apart to officiate in female blessings. Priesthood leaders had on occasion set women apart to bless the sick, although this setting apart was not seen as a prerequisite—at least in cases where the ministering woman had been endowed in the temple.4 Eliza R. Snow explained in 1884, “Any and all sisters who honor their holy endowments, not only have the right, but should feel it a duty, whenever called upon to administer to our sisters in these ordinances, which God has graciously committed to His daughters as well as to His sons.”5 In 1886, Salt Lake Stake Relief Society president Mary Isabella Horne spoke about washing and anointing the sick because some Relief Society members still believed that one had to be specially set apart to minister in these ordinances. Horne “told them that this was an erroneous impression; all good, Latter-day Saints, who had received their blessings, in the house of the Lord might officiate when called upon.”6

In these explanations, both Snow and Horne referred to blessing the sick and washing and anointing as ordinances. When Emmeline Wells asked President Wilford Woodruff for clarification in 1888, she framed her question in similar language: “Are sisters justified in administering the ordinance of washing and anointing previous to confinement to those who received their endowments and have married men outside of the church?” In his response below, Woodruff cautioned that “the ordinance of washing and anointing is one that should only be administered in Temples or other holy places.” While he sanctioned the women’s practice of “washing and anointing sisters who are approaching their confinement,” he also stated that the practice “is not, strictly speaking, an ordinance.”

Notwithstanding the clarifications provided by Woodruff’s response to Wells, members continued to send questions to the First Presidency concerning women ministering to the sick, and washing and anointing women before childbirth. In 1905 the stake president in Alberta, Canada, wrote, “We would thank you for your opinion on the question of Sisters annointing other sisters who themselves have not been through the Temple.” The answer mirrored what Woodruff stated in 1888, “Sisters annointing other sisters for confinement is not a temple ordinance and must not be confounded with it.”7 The Relief Society general presidency turned to Woodruff’s response to Wells again in 1909, when they requested and received permission from the First Presidency to distribute copies of Woodruff’s letter to stake Relief Society presidents. “The brethren indorsed Pres. Woodruff’s letter and approved of letting the stake presidents have a copy.”8




10P.O. BOX B. Salt Lake City, U.T. April 27th 1888.11

Mrs. Emmeline B Wells,

Editor “Woman’s Exponent.”

Dear Sister:

In a favor which I have received from you, under date of the 24th. inst., you ask,—

“First: Are sisters justified in administering the ordinance of washing and anointing previous to confinements to those who have received their endowments and have married men outside of the Church?”12

“Second: Can anyone who has not had their endowments be thus administered to by the sisters if she is a faithful saint in good standing and has not yet had the opportunity of going to [p. [1]] the Temple for the ordinances?”

To begin with I desire to say that the ordinance of washing and anointing is one that should only be administered in Temples or other holy places which are dedicated for the purpose of giving endowments to the Saints. That ordinance ought not to be administered to any one, whether she has received or has not received her endowments, in any other place or under any other circumstances.

But I imagine from your question that you refer to a practice that has grown up among the sisters of washing and anointing sisters who are approaching their confinement. If so, this is not, strictly speaking, an ordinance, unless it be done under the direction of the priesthood and in connection with the ordinance of laying on of hands for the restoration of the sick.

There is no impropriety in sisters washing and anointing their sisters in this way, under the circumstances you describe; but it should be [p. 2] understood that they do this, not as members of the priesthood, but as members of the Church, exercising faith for, and asking the blessings of the Lord upon, their sisters; just as they, and every member of the Church, might do in behalf of the members of their families.

In all these matters, however, care should be taken that wrong ideas be not imbibed and wrong practices be not adopted connected with ordinances of the Gospel.

In reply, therefore, to your two questions, answering you in the above light, I think you are quite justified in doing anything that you can for the benefit of the sisters who are in that condition, who may apply to you, even though they should be married to men outside of the Church; and certainly, as your second question implies, there should be no hesitation about administering to faithful sisters in good standing, though they may not have had the oppor[p. 3]tunity of receiving their endowments, any more than there would be were they to apply to have hands laid upon them by an Elder to rebuke sickness.

As to your third question, “Is it the proper thing for a sister to preside over a Relief Society who has not yet received her endowments?” I would naturally suppose that such a person would be rarely, if ever, called to preside over a Relief Society; because a woman who would be qualified for this, if married, would certainly honor the ordinances of the Lord’s house sufficiently to have her marriage solemnized in the Temple, and she could not have this done without receiving her endowments. Other cases, where a person would not have had her endowments, would be that of an unmarried woman, who, I suppose, is rarely called to preside over a Relief Society.

I trust that what I have said on these points will be quite satisfactory to you and will give you the needed information.

I am, with kind regards, Your Brother, W Woodruff [p. [4]]


  1. [1]“It is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is confer’d on them— and if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.” (Document 1.2, entry for Apr. 28, 1842.)

  2. [2]Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 15–16.

  3. [3]For example, see Document 4.8.

  4. [4]For example, apostle George A. Smith set apart Susanna Smith Adams in 1854 to wait upon women who were ill. On May 5, 1867, Wilford Woodruff recorded, “At the Close of the Meeting President Young with Some of the Twelve laid hands upon the Head of Mother Atwood & blessed her & set her apart to administer to the Sick of her sex.” (“Death of a Heroine,” Woman’s Exponent, Mar. 1, 1892, 20:127; Wilford Woodruff, Journals, 1833–1898, Wilford Woodruff, Journals and Papers, 1828–1898, CHL, May 5, 1867.)

  5. [5]Document 4.14.

  6. [6]“R. S., Y. L. M. I. A. & P. A. Reports,” Woman’s Exponent, Dec. 15, 1886, 15:110. The issue continued to require clarification; see Document 4.20.

  7. [7]Edward J. Wood to First Presidency, Nov. 7, 1905, First Presidency, Joseph F. Smith Stake Correspondence, 1901–1918, CHL, underlining in original. As another example, in 1908 Nephi Pratt, a mission president, asked, “In setting Relief Society sisters apart to give them authority to wash and anoint sisters for their confinement is there any particular form of words to be used in doing so? When [women] go to wash, anoint and administer to the sick, in what manner should they proceed.” President Joseph F. Smith replied, using language similar to President Woodruff’s, “Members of Relief Societies are not set apart and given authority to wash and anoint sisters for their confinement, for the reason that this practice, which has grown up among some of our Relief Societies, is not an ordinance. … In thus writing we do not wish it understood that sisters may not wash and anoint for the purpose mentioned, as there is no impropriety whatever in their doing so, inasmuch as they do it in a proper way, that is, in the spirit of faith and prayer.” (Joseph F. Smith to Nephi Pratt, Dec. 21, 1908, First Presidency Letterpress Copybooks, 1877–1949, CHL.)

  8. [8]Relief Society General Board Minutes, 1886–1911, CHL, Dec. 17, 1909, and Jan. 21, 1910. A shift away from female healing rituals began in the early twentieth century. In 1923 President Heber J. Grant wrote to general Relief Society president Clarissa S. Williams: “In some of the Stakes a practice exists for sisters to wash and anoint with oil for the health of sick sisters, and in some cases they have called in Elders to confirm their anointing. … We fail to see the consistency of sisters adminintering [administering] to the sick in the way mentioned and then sending for Elders to confirm their ministrations.” Grant’s statements on the subject later influenced apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, who wrote to the Relief Society general presidency in 1946: “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.” Smith’s letter “became the definitive statement on female ritual administration for the next several decades.” (Heber J. Grant, Charles W. Penrose, and A. W. Ivins to Clarissa S. Williams and counselors, Aug. 11, 1923, Liberty Stake Relief Society Scrapbook Selections, 1915–1933, CHL; Joseph Fielding Smith, Letter, July 29, 1946, Relief Society Washing and Anointing Files, 1888, 1903, 1914–1916, 1922, 1946–1947, CHL; Stapley and Wright, “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism,” 81.)

  9. [9]text: The top four lines of the document are preprinted letterhead.

  10. [10]text: At this point, “E.B. Wells” is written vertically, running up the page.

  11. [11]text: The underlining here indicates handwritten portions of this preprinted letterhead.

  12. [12]Wells linked healing blessings and temple ordinances in part because, since the days of Joseph Smith, the temple had been a place where both saving ordinances (such as endowments and sealings) and other ceremonies (such as blessings for health) were performed. (See Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “The Forms and the Power: The Development of Mormon Ritual Healing to 1847,” Journal of Mormon History 35, no. 3 [Summer 2009]: 42–87.)