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
CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST.
OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS.
Mrs. Emmeline B Wells,
Editor “Woman’s Exponent.”
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. ] 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. ]