If you know your way around the Bloggernacle, you’ve probably encountered J. Stapley’s comments about the research he and Kristine Wright were conducting on the subject of early Mormon women’s healing blessings. This culminated in two articles, The Forms and the Power: The Development of Mormon Ritual Healing to 1847 (reviewed earlier today by MH, and hereafter abbreviated F&P), and Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism (abbreviated FRHM). The first reaction I heard to these articles was a question: “What contribution do Stapley and Wright make to the understanding of this subject beyond what has already been done? (see esp. Quinn and Newell) It is true that they do not present new information in terms of aspects of women’s involvement in healing blessings. A prodigious amount of research went into the article, and additional historical accounts were provided, but it doesn’t break new ground in content. Stapley and Wright do offer a different interpretation of the material, however; and therein lies their contribution.
F&P laid a foundation by establishing that the origins of ritual healing in Mormonism were not attached to priesthood. The authors assert that healing was properly seen as a gift of the Spirit, revitalized with the Restoration. But since, in modern Mormonism, giving healing blessings is now closely connected with priesthood, questions regarding women and priesthood at the early stages are natural. In the second article, FRHM, Stapley and Wright attempt to “fill the explanatory lacunae” between the past and present. Why were women’s blessings conflated with priesthood? How did this practice develop into the form we see today? Why were women’s blessings discontinued? The authors state that their purpose in writing is to explain why the end of female administration is consistent and wasn’t the removal of a priesthood they already had.
The authors make some awfully good points about the tangling of priesthood and the gift of healing. The paper was strong in its discussion of the different factors involved in the decline of this practice: the death of Eliza R. Snow, a changing rhetoric of priesthood, transcription and standardization of policy, advances in science and medicine and so forth. I agree with conclusions Stapley has made about women and priesthood in his comments on diverse posts. But the article did not meet my expectations for several reasons. I believe that an article that suggests priesthood wasn’t involved in early Mormon women’s healing rituals must deal with the following issues:
- The idea that keys were given to sisters to perform these actions
- Female blessings which were specifically called “ordinances”
- Women who invoked the priesthood when giving blessings
- Sisters who were “ordained” and set apart to perform blessings
- Patriarchal blessings using the words “Melchizedek Priesthood” connected with women’s power to heal
- The sharing of priesthood with husbands and tandem blessings by couples
- Limitation of the exercise of healing ordinances to women who had received the endowment because of the belief that only endowed women had received priesthood.
Quotes containing all of these situations were found in FRHM, however I did not find that the authors satisfactorily resolved them. I think I know how Stapley would answer some of these issues, but they weren’t made very clear in this particular article. Several times while reading I wondered if Stapley’s and Wright’s ideas were at war. I imagined that Stapley’s desire was to claim that priesthood authority was always discrete from women’s blessings of faith. Wright, I thought, may have insisted that the ambiguity present in the quotations be preserved. If my vain imaginings are correct, Stapers is the one who announces that “church leaders consistently taught” that healing was distinct from authority received in the temple (p. 35). Two pages later I daresay it is Wright who describes both Joseph F. Smith and Franklin D. Richards changing their minds and teachings on the same issue (p. 38).
It might have been more interesting to have had each author write solo articles instead of trying to blend their styles and philosophies into one piece. Would Stapley have been more dogmatic? Would Wright have given the actual healing accounts more play? I hope one or both of the authors will respond to my allegations!
A shortcoming in FRHM was that there wasn’t a great deal of interpretation of the historical sources themselves. They seemed to be severely truncated and used as proof texts. Likely this was due to the length of the article. But the accounts would have provided greater interest and vitality to a text that came close to becoming tedious for the general reader. I itched for a detailed examination of key accounts, with the expertise of Stapley and Wright to draw conclusions. The narrative is diluted by putting a lot of the substantive information in the footnotes.
FRHM suffers from organizational weakness as well. The topics chosen do not lead the reader through a smooth transition of thought. I don’t think the article necessarily has to be in chronological order. But it should be organized in such a way that the reader does not become confused. The jumping back and forth in time between accounts was disconcerting and faintly misleading.
Most interesting is the parenthetical mention Wright made in a recent blog post of an outline from which the authors worked.
I live a little over 4000 km from Jonathan Stapley which brings some unique challenges to researching and writing together. Once we had compiled hundreds of healing accounts, they were arranged in a document chronologically. We read through them separately, made notes and then had a couple of marathon phone calls to discuss our findings.
My hope is that the authors will make this compilation available in print, online, (or just email it to me!) That would indeed be a great contribution to the field of Mormon women’s history.
Michael Quinn makes a good case for Mormon women having held the priesthood since 1843. He uses female blessings to bolster his assertions. I fully expected this article to provide strong evidence to the contrary, due to Stapley’s “sneak peeks.” But the most I could take out of Stapley and Wright’s treatment was that the doctrine was understood differently by different leaders and members until the time that it was discontinued in 1946.