Monday, April 06, 2009

LDS blessing rituals for childbirth

Several readers have asked to know more about the blessing rituals that LDS (Mormon) women used to hold as they prepared for childbirth. By time they reached the Great Basin in the late 1840s, LDS women frequently conducted washing, anointing, and blessing ceremonies in each others' homes; most often, this was done for a woman preparing to give birth. The practice lasted for about a century. I have found two articles that delve into the origins and eventual abandonment of these practices:

Linda King Newell. "A Gift Given: A Gift Taken: Washing, Anointing and Blessing the Sick Among Mormon Women." Sunstone Vol. 22 (1999): 30-43.

John Sillito and Constance L. Lieber. "'In Blessing We too Were Blessed': Mormon Women and Spiritual Gifts." Weber Studies Vol. 5.1 (Spring 1988): 61-73.

The modern Blessingway originated around the 1970s, when midwives used the Navajo Blessing Way ritual as inpiration for recreating a meaningful ceremony to honor a pregnant woman's transition into motherhood. Nowadays, secular Blessingways bear little resemblance to the original Navajo ceremonies.

I feel it's important to remember our spiritual and cultural practices that so often go forgotten. Until I came across these articles when I was a PhD student doing research for a history of medicine class, I had no idea that women of my own faith used to hold these kinds of gatherings. Below is an passage from pages 37-38 of the Sunstone article, parts of which I read at my Blessingway. The excerpts come from the minute book of the Oakley Idaho Second Ward Relief Society. Evidently they felt it was important enough to record word for word. As far as I can tell, this was written down around 1909.
The first two blessing follow each other closely with only minor changes in the wording here and there. The blessings were specific and comprehensive.
We anoint your spinal column that you might be strong and healthy no disease fasten upon it no accident belaff [befall] you, your kidneys that they might be active and health and preform [sic] their proper functions, your bladder that it might be strong and protected from accident, your Hips that your system might relax and give way for the birth of your child, your sides that your liver, your lungs, and spleen that they might be strong and preform their proper functions, . . . your breasts that your milk may come freely and you need not be afflicted with sore nipples as many are, your heart that it might be comforted.
They continued by requesting blessings from the Lord on the unborn child's health and expressed the hope that it might not come before its "full time" and that
the child shall present right for birth and that the afterbirth shall come at its proper time . . . and you need not flow to excess. . . . We anoint . . . your thighs that they might be healthy and strong that you might be exempt from cramps and from the bursting of veins. . .
The document combines practical considerations, more common to women's talk over the back fence, with the reassuring solace and compassion of being anointed with the balm of sisterhood. The women sealed the blessing:
Sister ___ we unitedly lay our hands upon you to seal the washing and anointing wherewith you have been washed and anointed for your safe delivery, for the salvation of you and your child and we ask God to let his special blessings to rest upon you, that you might sleep sweet at night that your dreams might be pleasant and that the good spirit might guard and protect you from every evil influence spirit and power that you may go your full time and that every blessing that we have asked God to confer upon you and your offspring may be literally fulfilled that all fear and dread may be taken from you and that you might trust in God. All these blessings we unitedly seal upon you in the name of Jesus Christ Amen.
The tender attention to both the women's psychological and physical state is an example of loving service and gentleness. That this widespread practice continued in similar form for several more decades is illustrated by the account written by a Canadian sister.
In the years from the early 1930s on, in the Calgary Ward R.S. under presidents--Bergeson, Maude Hayes, Lucile Ursenbach, the sisters often asked for a washing and blessing before going into the hospital for an operation or childbirth. In this ordinance two sisters washed the parts of the body, pronouncing appropriate words of prayer and blessing, . . . and at the conclusion put their hands on the head of the recipient and, in the name of the Lord pronounced a further blessing.

15 comments:

  1. I read about this also in the book "Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah". It is a great book!

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  2. Thanks for sharing the roots of this ritual. I have to admit, when you first posted about it I thought it was some kind of New Age ritual. How interesting to read about the early roots of this, the one you posted was very touching.

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  3. That is very interesting. I think it would be nice if more religions came up with something like that. I have read a bit about the power of prayer for the hospitalized person. I think this could mentally be very helpful.

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  4. Wow, that is so powerful! I love it!

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  5. The mix of spiritual and medical language in these blessings is fascinating. Thanks for posting.

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  6. jen.b.in.az4/8/09, 2:28 AM

    thanks :)

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  7. I am so glad you posted this. It would be wonderful if this was brought back into practice.

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  8. I am amazed at the power of those words. Thank you for sharing it. If only that was a more common practice among the women of the LDS church, or that it was something that could traditionally take place in the temple.

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  9. Are such blessings still allowed or are they now relegated to men only?

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  10. These kind of blessings done women-to-women fell out of practice by 1946. More and more, these things were relegated as Priesthood responsibilities and increasingly discouraged. Still, there's nothing to prevent modern LDS women from doing an adaptation of this kind of thing, just not in the form of a formal washing/annointing/sealing that it used to take. For a really fascinating examination about why these gatherings, once encouraged by church leaders, gradually became seen as less and less appropriate for women to do, read the Sunstone article.

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  11. I had no idea. Why did this stop?

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  12. This is an interesting part of LDS history I didn't know about. I wonder why it was abandoned? It's something I'd almost like to include for myself, but I'm afraid if I mentioned it my family (all very strong LDS) would think it's strange or even sacrilegious.

    Thank you for mentioning the Navajo origins as well. I find it frustrating when people use the word 'Blessingway' without respect to the culture and people from whom it originated, as it is a very special and significant ritual for them. My husband is Dine' and I love his culture. It bothers me when such a special ceremony is reduced to cakes and ribbons and resembles little more than a baby shower.

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  13. Wow! This is fascinating! I love that teh Sisterhood of women was once so respected. I too find it interesting that specific body parts, and functions were blessed to be at their optimal best for the women's health and childbearing would go well.

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  14. This is really interesting! This part: "your breasts that your milk may come freely and you need not be afflicted with sore nipples as many are, your heart that it might be comforted." really hit me. The part about the hear being comforted, I honestly believe it was referring to maybe protecting against PPD? That would be such a great thing to pray over an expecting woman!!

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  15. When I was a doula before I became a midwife, I attended a birth of a muslum woman. When it came time for prayer she instructed her other helper that she needed to stop helping her and go do prayer. So the woman went and washed herself and laid out a towel (prayer rug) and proceeded to pray. I was impressed that she washed first. to be clean then she was ready for prayer. I have often thought about that and how the laboring woman was needing the prayer to be offered more than she needed the words of encouragement.

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