Monday, October 12, 2009

From the Finger of Jehovah to Consecrated Enemas

Healing Canes

Since my last blog post on Joseph Smith’s cane and folk-magic, the following statement from Brigham Young’s 2nd Counselor in the First Presidency, Apostle Heber C. Kimball (1857), was brought to my attention:

How much would you give for even a cane that Father Abraham had used? or a coat or ring that the Saviour had worn? The rough oak boxes in which the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum were brought from Carthage, were made into canes and other articles. I have a cane made from the plank of one of those boxes, so as brother Brigham and a great many others, and we prize them highly, and esteem them a great blessing. I want to carefully preserve my cane, and when I am done with it here, I shall hand it down to my heir, with instructions to him to do the same. And the day will come when there will be multitudes who will be healed and blessed through the instrumentality of those canes, and the devil cannot overcome those who have them, in consequence of their faith and confidence in the virtues connected with them.[1]

Quinn’s Commentary

Historian D. Michael Quinn astutely observes a relationship between healing objects (such as the canes mentioned above) and the LDS practice of anointing the sick that has continued into the 21st century:
Healing objects such as handkerchiefs, canes, and cloaks probably had limited use among Mormons. Compared to the many accounts of seer-stone divination, there are relatively few references to LDS healing relics. Nevertheless, Mormons throughout the world still use consecrated olive oil to heal in connection with the priesthood ordinance of administering to the sick. If asked about this now, most Mormons would answer that applying special oil to the head during a religious ordinance is purely symbolic.

That definition falters in view of the nineteenth-century Mormon practice of applying the oil directly to the part of the body to be healed. Until the twentieth-century, even LDS apostles drank consecrated oil for internal maladies.

Modern church authorities have specifically instructed that “taking consecrated oil internally, or using it for anointing or rubbing afflicted parts of the body, is not part of the ordinance of administering to the sick.” This seems to recognize the folk-magic dimensions in early Mormon use of consecrated oil.[2]
Rather than challenge one of Quinn’s claims, as I did in my last post, this blog entry will instead support and substantiate Quinn’s comments pertaining to the perception of consecrated oil in early Mormon culture.

Finger of Jehovah

Orson Pratt (1879) explained that Latter-day Saints understood the consecrated oil to have been touched by the finger of God, and that this contact was the means by which the oil became charged with supernatural power. Pratt compared the Brother of Jared story (found in the Book of Mormon) to the LDS ritual of consecrating olive oil:

The brother of Jared had gone up into the mountain, and had moulten out of a rock sixteen small stones, which he carried up into the top of the mount. He went there with an object in view; the object was to get the Lord to touch the stones that they might shine forth in darkness in the eight vessels, (which had been built to convey him and his brother across the great waters) one to be placed at each end of each of the vessels. It would naturally increase the faith of the brother of Jared, to believe it possible that he might see the finger of the Lord. He was going to pray that God would touch the stones, the same as we pray for the Lord to put forth his finger and touch the particles of oil, when we dedicate it, for sacred purposes. If we pray in faith, we must suppose that the finger touches the oil. And Jared prayed in faith, He did not know but what it might be his privilege to see his finger. He did see it; it appeared to him like he finger of a man, like unto flesh and blood.[3]
Latter-day Saints previously reported seeing the finger of God touching the oil as they had consecrated it. “[W]hile consecrating a bottle of oil,” wrote Zebede Coltrin in his diary (1870), “we saw visibly the finger of God enter the mouth of the bottle.”[4]

Application of Consecrated Oil

Believing that consecrated oil was charged with supernatural healing powers, Latter-day Saints (as explained by Quinn) applied the oil to various parts of the body, even taking the oil internally by drinking it, in hopes to cure an unlimited number of ailments. Elder Abel Evans (1813-1866) applied consecrated oil to the face of a Welch woman allegedly afflicted by cancer,[5] and for a cold remedy, both Caroline Crosby and Louisa Pratt applied consecrated oil to Johnny Tait’s “throat and stomach, and more of the same taken internally with a dose of molasses.”[6] William Clayton recorded in his journal (January 18, 1840) how he, Hiram Clark, Wilford Woodruff, and Theodore Turley had administered to a sister that they had found to be “quite insensible.” As these brethren administered to her, they “anointed her head and gave her some oil inwardly.”[7] Benjamin Brown recounted a story (pre-1845) about a poisoned woman who had become blind and nearly dead. According to Brown, she regained her strength after taking the oil internally, but remained blind. Brown then anointed her eyes that “she should see the light of day.”[8] Hezekiah Mitchell reported (1847) that he had administered consecrated oil “internally” to a girl allegedly suffering from typhus fever.[9] Eliza Jane Merrick asserted (1849) that she had administered to her sister by anointing “her chest with the oil” and “gave her some inwardly.”[10] The consecrated oil was also used to heal the Saints from spiritual ailments. Brigham Young, for example, instructed (1860) those who were struggling to discern the will of God, saying, “A great many do not discern this, because they have not eyes to see, nor ears to hear.” His solution: “Anoint your eyes and pour oil in your ears, and pray that your hearts may be softened and your minds quickened to understand.”[11] While still residing in Nauvoo, Brigham Young administered to himself, taking the consecrated oil internally. Not only did he drink consecrated olive oil, but he also injected himself with consecrated enemas.
Bro[ther] Howard Egan called upon me in relation to Bro[ther] H. S. Sherman discontinuing his services on the western line with him. I told him Bro[ther] Shermans state of health required him to discontinue traveling that he might bestow more attention upon himself and use remedies to entirely cure himself of the piles and tumor he was afflicted with. Howard then left. I told Bro[ther] S. & S. Sherman yesterday that I had been obliged to use a syringe since my sickness in Nauvoo, and now I could not live months without using it; I believe the the [sic] frequent use of it has considerably benefitted my health as I am much better now than I have been for years. I enjoy my food much better that [sic] I used years ago. The use of the syringe strengthens my bowels I am persuaded that in nine cases out of ten the bowels become deranged before the stomach does, and the bowels being deranged soon affect the stomach. I charge the syringe frequently with composition sometimes I mix consecrated oil with it.[12]
By the 1890s, there arose a disagreement among the saints over “using consecrated oil for such common purposes as burns, warts, or for enemas in cases of pinworms or other internal disorders.” Some saints believed the head was the only appropriate place on the body to be anointed during the administration. To this assertion, one LDS author replied,
Well, if the oil is meant only to be used on the head I have never found it out. If a wart is not a sickness it certainly is an evidence of unhealthy secretions in the blood, and what is sickness but a departure from health? If we could only put the faith in the oil that we do in the worm lozenges or in the rabbit’s foot, the cure would be on quite as natural principles and would moreover be in accordance with our revealed religion.[13]
Olive oil continued to be “the most used medicine of my community,” said a Mormon woman about her upbringing in Clarkston Utah during the first half of the 20th century.

It was consecrated by the elders of the church for the healing of the sick and was found in every home. People used it in spiritual therapy. The patient was anointed with it and then administered to by the elders. It was taken as a cure for appendicitis. Mixed with grains of sugar, it was given for coughs and croup. Combined with a few drops of camphor, it followed the stinging mustard plaster. It relieved sunburn and scratches, was applied to the scalp for dandruff, and was mixed with soda into paste for severe burns.

Bishop Ravsten said at the bedside of one sick patient, “I feel prompted to oil the bowels.” An olive oil enema was given. The one result I remember was that the syringe was ruined.”[14]

Second counselor in the First Presidency (and soon to be president) argued in favor of taking the oil internally, and anointing various parts of the body.
Pres J.[oseph] F.[ielding] Smith [senior] spoke to us on the principles of Faith and Prayer. Said it was absurd for men to pour a drop of oil on the top of the head and pray that it might permeate the whole being. We should annoint the sick all over and give them oil inwardly. Pres. Cannon also spoke on the same subject.[15]
By the 1950s, however, church authorities restricted the administration of oil to the head only. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles compiled and published statements from John A. Widtsoe that they believed (as the compilation’s title indicates) provided propper guidelines for the Priesthood and Church Government in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One of those statements compiled prohibited internal anointings, “Giving consecrated oil internally is not a part of the administration and should not be done.”[16]

Propper protocol for administering to the sick was further defined by apostle (and later Prophet) Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. (son of Joseph F. Smith senior previously cited), discouraging internal anointings, and restricting the "crown of the head" as the only appropriate area to apply the oil:
“It it proper to anoint the afflicted parts of the body?”

No. The anointing should be on the crown of the head. (It could be a matter of impropriety to anoint afflicted parts of the body.)

“Is it permissible to administer the oil internally?”

No. Taking the oil internally is not part of the administration. If persons who are ill wish to take oil internally, they are not forbidden, but many sicknesses will not be improved by oil in the stomach.[17]
Bruce R. McConkie (of the quorum of the Seventy, and later Apostle) reaffirmed this protocol: “Taking consecrated oil internally, or using it for anointing or rubbing afflicted parts of the body, is not part of the ordinance of administering to the sick.”[18]

The policy is now stated explicitly in the Church Handbook of Instructions: “Members should not take consecrated oil internally or apply it on afflicted parts of the body.”[19]


[1] Journal of Discourses, 4:294.
[2] D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), 317.
[3] Journal of Discourses, 21:198-99
[4] Remarks of Zebedee Coltrin on Kirtland, Ohio History of the Church (source: Minutes of High Priest Meeting, Spanish Fork, Utah, February 5, 1870), (accessed 11 October 2009).
[5] George Q. Cannon, Early Scenes in Church History: Eighth Book of the Faith-Promoting Series (Salt Lake City, 1882), 38, In New Mormon Studies: A Comprehensive Library. CD-ROM. Smith Research Associates, 1998.
[6] Edward Leo Lyman, San Bernardino: The Rise and Fall of a California Community (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), 309, In New Mormon Studies: A Comprehensive Library.
[7] George D. Smith, An Intimate Chronicle; The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 6.
[8] George Q. Cannon, Gems for the Young Folks: Fourth Book of the Faith-Promoting Series (Salt Lake City, 1881), 71, In New Mormon Studies: A Comprehensive Library.
[9] Orson Pratt, Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon (Liverpool, England, 1850-51), 75, In New Mormon Studies: A Comprehensive Library.
[10] Merrick 1849, 205; as cited in Linda King Newell, “LDS Women and Priesthood: The Historical Relationship of Mormon Women and Priesthood,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 18, no. 3 (Fall 1985): 23.
[11] Journal of Discourses 8:31.
[12] Brigham Young Office Journals—Exceprts (1853-62), In New Mormon Studies: A Comprehensive Library.
[13] The Deseret Weekly (11 March 1893) vol. 46 p. 370, (accessed 11 October 2009).
[14] Ann Hansen, “Utah State University Folklore Collection: Folk Medicine from Clarkston, Utah,” Western Folklore, vol. 18, no. 2 (April 1959): 111.
[15] Ruth May Fox, Diary 1894-1939, typescript, MS 5469, June 3, 1900, LDS Church Archives; as cited by J. Stapley, “Consecrated Oil as Medical Therapy,” By Common Consent (blog, 17 April 2007), (accessed 11 October 2009).
[16] John A. Widstoe (“compiled under the direction of the Council of the Twelve”), Priesthood and Church Government in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1950), 356-57, (accessed 11 October 2009).
[17] Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book co., 1957), 1:148.
[18] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 22.
[19] Church Handbook of Instructions (1999 edition), 30.


  1. I wonder if this evolved as the efficacy of consecrated oil became a matter of grave doubt, ie: people annointed with it (other than, perhaps, in the form of an enema to treat constipation) didn't seem to get better any more than people not annointed with it. This contradicts the notion of the oil being charged with supernatural power.

    Restricting the annointing to a drop or two on the crown of the head allows it to seem much more a matter of faith and "thy will be done", which can be excused or explained away when the disease isn't cured, or the person dies, or whatever.

    In other words, restricting the annointing to a drop on the top of the head, rather than liberal annointing of the afflicted part, or drinking of the oil, gives the believer a much more usable "out" or excuse in the case of a non-beneficial result.

  2. A thought provoking comment. I think there may be some truth to what you say. Thanks Seth.

  3. Another very interesting insight on how the LDS Church of today has morphed to become fundamentally other than that of the 1800's.

  4. Mike, Thank-you for your excellent articles.

  5. I admit to not being through the temple any time recently, but I was under the impression that the Sealing and Anointing had also undergone a similar change? Am I right? If so, I'm curious if the change was due to similar pressures as presented here.