Dear 100 Board,
Parent's blessings (aka, both father and mother laying their hands on a child's head and the father acting as voice): are they still appropriate? I don't think they are common now but my understanding is they were at one time. Are there any official statements limiting present day practice? Thanks.
In researching the concept of both parents laying their hands on children, and reading more about the practice of women laying their hands on others in order to heal the sick (a concept gleefully brought up by a branch president in Gospel Principles class with new members and investigators while on my mission), I came across a lot of information that I thought was worth considering and digesting. I realize this answer might go more in depth than you were expecting (or hoping for) so feel free to jump straight to my conclusions and summary at the end. But again, I think this is pretty interesting stuff.
The appropriateness of parents' blessings (with both parents laying their hands on their child's head) has not, I would say, been expressly addressed in any authoritative way by Church leaders. It is important to realize, however, that for many people the important issue that is inherent in this question is whether or not women can lay their hands on anyone at all for purposes of providing blessings of comfort or healing the sick. On that question there is certainly more information than on the specific subquestion of a joint parents' blessing.
It is certain that for a long period of Church history, it was common practice for women to lay their hands on others for the purpose of blessing. A fairly exhaustive research paper on this topic (that focuses primarily on women washing, anointing and blessing the sick) written by Linda King Newell can be found here. There is also a thorough discussion regarding fathers' blessings and women participating in them here (which is refreshingly free of arguments and criticism for an online forum regarding Mormon doctrine; many of the cited quotes below come from this discussion).
To begin with, here are some quotes from early members' diaries that mention times when both parents laid their hands on children to bless them.
From Wilford Woodruff's Journal (4:244). Occasion: Wilford Woodruff's namesake son, just ordained a priest, was about to begin his duties.
3 February 1854: His father and mother [Phoebe Carter Woodruff] laid hands upon him and blessed him and dedicated him unto the Lord.George Goddard, Diary 1875-76, 8 Sept. 1875 (George Goddard was the first assistant to George Q. Cannon and a patriarch). Occasion: George Goddard recorded an incident about his sixteen-year-old son, Brigham H. on his birthday.
8 September 1875: his Mother and Myself, put our hands upon his head and pronounced a parents blessing upon him.Those are the only examples I could find of parents' blessings (like the kind I think you are asking about). I think it's interesting how President Woodruff and his wife were blessing and dedicating their son to the Lord (in a way that sounds reminiscent of the mother of the prophet Samuel in the Old Testament or the parents of John the Baptist in the New Testament. Does anyone dedicate their almost-adult, sixteen-year-old children to the Lord any more? Perhaps we should.).
Joseph F. Smith, in an article titled "Questions and Answers" published in the Improvement Era in February 1907 answered a question about a wife laying on hands with her husband:
Q: 'Does a wife hold the priesthood with her husband? and may she lay hands on the sick with him, with authority?'I think the line "It is no uncommon thing for a man and wife unitedly to administer to their children" (emphasis mine) could be considered indicative of blessings in general and just blessings of healing. President Smith, though, brings up a key point that will be reemphasized later and that I think is important to the whole discussion that we'll get more into later.
A: A wife does not hold the priesthood in connection with her husband, but she enjoys the benefits thereof with him; and if she is requested to lay hand 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, and the husband being mouth, he may properly say out of courtesy, "By authority of the holy priesthood in us vested."
Those are the only examples and quotes that seem to discuss general blessings. There are many more quotes regarding the Church practice of women blessing the sick.
A History of Women Blessing the Sick
In a meeting of the Relief Society on April 28, 1842, Joseph Smith discussed women anointing and healing. Eliza R. Snow reported the minutes and wrote this (I have put what could attributed to quotes from Joseph Smith in bold):
Prest. Smith continued the subject (of healing the sick by the laying on of hands) by adverting to the commission given to the ancient apostles "Go ye into all the world" . . . No matter who believeth; these signs such as healing the sick, casting out devils . . . should follow all that believe whether male or female. He ask'd the Society if they could not see by this sweeping stroke that werein they are ordained, it is the privilege of those set apart to administer in that authority which is conferr'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. . . . Respecting the females laying on hands, he further remarked, there could be no devil in it if God gave his sanction by healing-- that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick than in wetting the face with water. It is no sin for any body to do it that has faith, or if the sick has faith to be heal'd by the administration.Brigham Young said:
Why do you not live so as to rebuke disease? . . . 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. (14 Nov. 1869, JD 13:155.)Heber C. Kimball said this:
Some of you, ladies, that go abroad from house to house, blessing the sick, having your little circles of women come together, why are you troubling yourselves to bless and lay your hands on women, and prophesy on them, if you do not believe the principle? (Heber C. Kimball Journal of Discourses, 5: 176 - 177.)In a message from the First Presidency to stake presidents and bishops, President Joseph F. Smith, together with Anthon H. Lund and Charles W. Penrose, issued a statement answering a list of questions regarding women anointing and ministering to the sick. I am not including the entire letter (simply to try to cut down on the length of what I know will be a long, long answer), but the First Presidency was attempting to clarify procedural questions about the practice of women washing and anointing and blessing others. The Relief Society leadership had sent out a circular (i.e., pamphlet) with information regarding the washings and anointings, but the First Presidency was attempting to clarify any lingering questions people might have.
4. Have the sisters the right to administer to sick children?I'm not sure exactly what is meant by the term "their confinement" as used in question number seven (and used in the sections of the letter I didn't include), but it was common practice for women to be washed and anointed before childbirth, with specific blessings on her body that it would be capable and healthy during labor, and I surmise that "confinement" is a term for the period of labor associated with childbirth.
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 the 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.
During the 1920s through the 1940s, priesthood leaders began to make statements about women's blessings that indicated that anointing and blessing the sick would be primarily, if not solely, a priesthood responsibility. In 1946, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith wrote to the Relief Society Presidency and said this:
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.Years later, President Joseph Fielding Smith, in his book Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 3 wrote,
If a man and his wife were alone with a sick person, could he anoint with the oil and then seal the anointing with his wife assisting using the priesthood she holds jointly with her husband? President Joseph F. Smith answered this question as follows: "Does a wife hold the priesthood with her husband, and may she lay hands on the sick with him, with authority? 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."I hope you don't think it's redundant that I included in the quote from Doctrines of Salvation two other quotes, from Joseph Smith and Joseph F. Smith, that I included above. I happen to think they are indicative of President Fielding Smith's desire to align his opinions with the scriptures and with the modern day prophets.
When this is done the wife is adding her faith to the administration of her husband. The wife would lay on hands just as would a member of the Aaronic Priesthood, or a faithful brother without the priesthood, she in this manner giving support by faith to the ordinance performed by her husband. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, "Respecting females administering for the healing of the sick, . . . 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 administration." Such an administration would not be by virtue of the priesthood, but a manifestation of faith.
It might be appropriate to include a quick tangent paragraph here. Regarding the shift in the 1920s toward the priesthood alone blessing the sick, there are a few paragraphs of Linda Newell's paper that I think unfairly characterize this move on the part of Church leadership as an unfair restriction and domination of the women of the Church, who timidly accepted this "death-knell" of the practice. I think that Sister Newell's paper shows fantastic historical and scholarly attention. But I also think that since we can't say exactly what the motivation and reasons behind the Church leaders' statements were (for good or for bad), I think Sister Newell unfairly editorializes and inserts (in my opinion) too much personal bias. Without pretending that sexism didn't exist in Church history, I think there are some legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons why women's blessings faded from common practice.
This also might be a good time to get back to the original question about the "appropriateness" of parents' blessings, which I have clearly expanded into all cases of women laying on hands to bless others. Let me reiterate that I could find no examples of statements saying that a joint blessing with a husband would be inappropriate, and that President Fielding Smith's quote clearly shows his openness to women joining in on blessings of healing. I have some ideas as to why women laying on hands as a general practice in the Church hasn't been encouraged (and in cases of healing, even discouraged), but I'll say now (and again in case you didn't have the patience to get even this far in this essay of an answer) that on a personal, case-by-case basis as directed by the Spirit, I see no reason why a parents' blessing would be inappropriate.
Here are a few reasons why I can imagine the Church, as a general policy, moved away from women laying on hands to bless and heal. These are my own ideas, but they certainly make sense to me.
Reason 1: Scriptural
The first thing that I could think of is that there is no direct, specific mention in any of the standard works of women laying on hands to bless or heal.
From what I could find, the reasons/occasions for laying on hands, as mentioned in the scriptures are these (note: lists of scriptures are not necessarily exhaustive, just representational):
- Conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost (2 Timothy 1:6; Moroni 2:2; D&C 20:41, 20:68, 35:6, and many, many more. This is by far the most commonly mentioned reason for laying on hands.)
- Healing the sick (Mark 6:5; Mark 6:13 (specifically it mentions anointing with oil); Mark 16:18; Mormon 9:24; Luke 4:40; James 5:14 (another specific mention of the elders anointing with oil, not necessarily the laying on of hands); D&C 42:44; D&C 66:9)
- Ordaining to the priesthood (Exodus 29:10; Alma 6:1; D&C 13; D&C 84:6)
- General blessings of comfort (Alma 31:36 (Alma blesses his mission companions))
- Blessing children (D&C 20:70)
- Declaring lineage (D&C 68:21)
Conferring the gift of the Holy Ghost, conferring or ordaining to an office in the priesthood, blessing children, and declaring lineage are all specifically described to be solely the responsibility of the priesthood, which women do not have nor participate in (though they receive the blessings of it). That means the only scriptural area we could find for women laying on hands would be within the realm of healing the sick, which clearly was/is not fundamentally problematic given the numerous presidents of the Church who supported this practice in the Church. Joseph Smith, in the quote mentioned above, specifically mentions the promises given in Mark 16:18, which contains the promise that "they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover" (and which is found also in Mormon 9:24) was a promise given to all believers "whether male or female."
I don't in any way discount Joseph Smith's words here, but I do think that it could be significant (especially in the discussion about the problem of confusion and clarity, which I'll get to below) that there aren't any scriptures that specifically describe women laying on hands for healing or any other reason, while there are numerous scriptures describing men who hold the priesthood laying on hands. Again, I'll go more into this in Reason 3.
Reason 2: The Issue of Laying on Hands
The Bible Dictionary entry on "Laying on of hands" says this:
A procedure used from the earliest times in the manner of blessing, conferring the Holy Ghost, and ordaining to the priesthood. . . . [a long list of scripture references] Such procedure is in accord with the revealed will of the Lord, and is not a mere formality. In latter-day revelation the laying on of hands is discussed by the Lord as follows: "I will lay my hand upon you by the hand of my servant Sidney Rigdon, and you shall receive my Spirit . . ." (D&C 36: 2)The fact that the laying on of hands is not just a formality is certainly true, and I think there is a lot to be said for the principles of "acting as personal agents of the Lord" when laying on hands. But in my mind, the fact that it is done, that it has been done, that it is recorded as being done by people ancient and modern does not explain the question of why we lay hands on people for certain ordinances, procedures and occasions. Exactly why is it important? Is there power in doing it? Is there weakness or sacrilege in not laying on hands? And since there are times dictated by scripture when it is necessary to lay on hands (as the BD points out, blessing, conferring the Holy Ghost and ordaining to the priesthood), why isn't healing included in this list? This line of questioning could be applied to a myriad of procedural questions about why we do things in ordinances (raising the right hand during baptism, for example). And while I think that there are probably good explanations for these procedural rules, I think we need to recognize there is a lot we don't know about them.
There is another issue with the laying on of hands as it relates to healing that I think fits into this discussion. The gift to heal is one of the specified gifts of the Spirit found in the scriptures. In enumerating some of the gifts of the Spirit, D&C 46:20 says, " And to others it is given to have faith to heal," and Moroni 10:11 says, ". . . and to another, the gifts of healing by the same Spirit." It seems illogical that this spiritual gift would not be given to women who have as much capacity for faith and therefore capacity to heal or be healed by faith, as men do.
So what does it matter to heal or bless or do anything by laying on hands or by not laying on hands? I'm not trying to be flippant or dismissive with these questions, I'm just trying to point out that we are not sure about what it means or its relevance, questions that, if we had answers to, might make it easier to understand if it would or would not be appropriate or necessary for a woman to bless or heal by laying on hands. The fact that we don't have answers makes me think that this is not as much a fundamentally doctrinal question as it is procedural policy.
Reason 3: Avoiding Confusion
I feel like this last reason has been implied and set up by both the scriptures but also the prophetic quotes stated above. In my mind the best explanation for why the Church might have shifted away from the practice of women laying on hands is to avoid confusion.
I think that there is a lot indicated by both of the above quotes from Joseph F. Smith. While he says nothing about the "appropriateness" or "correctness" of women laying on hands to bless or heal (I think it's safe to assume that he, like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, approved of the practice), these two statements consist of him offering important doctrinal correction on points involved with women laying on hands. First, he clearly states that "A wife does not hold the priesthood in connection with her husband, but she enjoys the benefits thereof with him." Then, in the First Presidency message clarifying questions about washings and anointings President Smith says that "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." He also states that the blessings should not use the word "seal" but the word "confirm."
In my mind, this correction, given in the Improvement Era and in a First Presidency letter, indicates that some Church members had already or might in the future be led to incorrectly assume because of this practice that women did hold the priesthood in some fashion. Also, it's possible that the washings and anointings done by women were either (1) being confused as being the same as the washings and anointings done in the temple or (2) were somewhat too revealing about what those sacred temple washings and anointings consisted of. While these presumed reasons for doctrinal correction are my own thoughts (maybe President Smith's clarifications were purely preventative and no one had these problems at all), I think the fact that clarification was needed is important. Especially considering how the Church has grown, and how easily misinformation can spread and cause faith-shaking confusion within growing Church communities, it makes sense to me that it could have been to avoid confusion that this practice was phased out.
Perhaps in the Church at this time, it is too hard to separate the action of "laying on hands" with the "priesthood." I think that in itself, women laying on hands to bless, anoint and heal, is not only innocuous, but I can see how it would be an uplifting spiritual experience for women. But I can see how easily this practice could be misunderstood by the general Church membership. And since it is not a practice clearly instigated by scriptural or prophetic revelation, it isn't surprising that it was allowed/encouraged to fade from general usage.
So, bismark, though it might seem like circular reasoning, I think the only reason why parents' blessings are not common practice is because they are not commonly done. I feel absolutely sure that a mother is certainly a participant in a blessing of a child, through her faithfulness, whether or not her hands are placed on her child. One woman on an internet forum talked about how she always holds her children during blessings for the express reason of being able to participate in that physical way. I think the safest route here is to do what the Lord indicates through the Spirit and to not limit what the Spirit might indicate to do in a moment when a blessing or healing was required.
- Rating Pending (who thought that wifes' laying on hands mention in Doctrines of Salvation existed solely for the personal enjoyment of that one Sunday School teacher on my mission)
I of course have no authority whatsoever on this matter. However, I would actually say that it is appropriate for both the father and mother to lay their hands on a child's head. We do know that women alone used to bless people, and it worked. Personally, I think there are practices in the early Church that have been forgotten for whatever reason that are still just as appropriate today. I honestly think that God would not deny a mother the ability to bless her child if that is what she desired to do; it's a righteous desire, and He's not going to say, "Sorry. You can't participate in blessing your child because you don't have the priesthood! You just have to stand idly by."
I assume you heard Elder Oaks' talk on healing blessings in the priesthood session of the April 2010 General Conference. His talk did not talk about other types of blessings generally, but he taught a few principles that I think can be applied more generally.
Elder Oaks said that the healing power of a blessing is predicated mostly upon the faith of the recipient, not the one giving the blessing. In fact, he suggested that the actual words spoken in the blessing (after the sealing of the anointing) are unimportant except insofar as they inspire the faith of those who hear. The words spoken will not change the will of God, but if they accurately reflect the will of God, they can inspire those who hear to have faith in the expressed will of God. To my understanding, the only part of a healing blessing that actually requires the priesthood is the anointing and sealing of the anointing.
If a blessing is given that is not a healing blessing, then, it seems that its only purpose is to express the will of God. I see no reason that it is necessary to lay hands on someone's head before the will of God can be made known. But likewise, the inclusion of a mother's hands in a blessing may serve as an expression of her faith, and as Elder Oaks suggested, the faith of those present is the key for activating the blessings. Now, I still don't have a clear understanding of all this, because the Church's Family Guidebook suggests that blessings of comfort and counsel, as well as father's blessings, should be done by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood. If the purpose of the words in a healing blessing are simply to express the will of God, then would it not be the same for other kinds of blessings? Yet the Church instructs us to state that a father's blessing is done by the authority of the priesthood.
I don't understand everything about it, and I don't know that I can directly answer your question. But I do believe that in the giving of a father's blessing, the faith of the mother contributes to the effectiveness of the blessing. Regardless of whether or not the mother actually has her hands on the child, the efficacy of her faith does not change.
Women, I highly recommend you go read that talk if you haven't had a chance yet.