Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

The Mormon Temple Ritual You’ve Never Heard Of


I had been a Latter-day Saint for many years before I first heard about the LDS temple ritual of baptism for healing.  I was fascinated. Kudos to guest blogger Jonathan Stapley and his fellow researcher Kris Wright, who have recovered many accounts of this practice, which was part of Mormonism until the 1920s, and are now publishing their research. This is history I read with a sigh for what has been lost to us, and what might have been.  –JKR


SHORTLY AFTER HER HUSBAND returned home from a British mission in 1890, thirty-six-year-old Eleanor Cannon Woodbury Jarvis entered the St. George Temple font. This mother of eight sought a miracle. She remembered: “In the spring of 1884 my health failed and I had very poor health for the next 17 or 18 years. I was very near deaths door several times, but by the power of Faith my life was spared. . . . I was taken to the Temple in a wheel chair, was carried into the Font, baptized for my health & walked out & dressed myself, the first time for six months.”

So opens the paper that Kris Wright and I wrote on the history of Baptism for Health, a healing ritual that was common among Latter-day Saints from 1841 to 1922.


I think I first came across the idea of baptism for heath when reading a compilation of First Presidency letters. It was the letter that ended the practice. For someone whose ideas about healing ritual were decidedly modern, it was thrilling to find that Latter-day Saints were baptizing people to heal them, and in the temples no less! We don’t do anything like that today. All sorts of questions arose and I started looking specifically for accounts of ritual practice. Once I started looking, the accounts seemed to be everywhere. Joseph Smith baptized several for their health. Temples kept regular records for how many baptisms for health they performed.

After starting to work with Kris Wright, a fellow researcher, we decided that our first project would be a paper to present at the Mormon History Association annual meeting in which we compared the development of baptism for health and female ritual healing. After that, we decided that a history of baptism for health would be our first paper to submit for publication.


You can read the whole paper here. What we found and documented more explicitly in our second paper, was that Latter-day Saints transformed their salvific rituals into healing rituals. The earliest revelations to Joseph Smith instructed the Elders to lay hands on the sick, which they did. They often prayed with the sick and then laid hands on the afflicted regions of the body as well as the head. Once the Kirtland temple liturgy was available to the body of the saints, anointing the sick became common and shared the pattern from the temple: anoint with oil, seal blessings. Mormons adapted the Nauvoo temple rites to heal the sick as well.


It was there, on the bend in the Mississippi, that Joseph Smith taught that the temple was to be a special place for healing and declared that the temple font–the first font of the restoration–was a place where the Saints could be healed through baptism. As soon as the font was ready in 1841, the Quorum of the Twelve started baptizing the sick to heal them. The font had some problems, however, and until they could be fixed, baptisms for the dead and the sick were moved to the river. It was in the river that Joseph Smith baptized Emma for her health. After that time, Latter-day Saints baptized for health wherever they found themselves: England, Tahiti, on transatlantic vessels, on the trail West, in Utah and in the temples.


The end of baptism for health is important in that it highlights a major era of liturgical transformation and modernization. After the pioneers had passed away, Church leaders began questioning practices that tradition dictated to be normative. Early Mormons did not write formal liturgical guidelines, preferring to teach each other how to administer rituals by example. Teachings regarding baptism for health were never canonized. In 1920, President Heber J. Grant began a process to codify church liturgy and baptism for health did not make the cut.

So closes the paper Kris and I wrote on this topic:

Although not part of modern LDS praxis, baptism for healing is an integral feature of Mormon history and played an important role in the development of the modern Church’s rituals and conceptualizations of healing. It was born of Mormonism’s charismatic restoration, received Joseph Smith’s revelatory support, and was promoted by generations of Church leaders. Although it was ultimately eliminated from the lexicon of the faithful, it provides an illuminating window through which historians can view the health, life, and death of Mormon men and women.


Jonathan Stapley received
his doctorate in carbohydrate chemistry from Purdue University, and he currently works with a firm that
is industrializing his graduate research.  Dr. Stapley is also a
independent historian and is currently serving on the editorial board of the Journal
of Mormon History

  • Sally

    Wow, I have NEVER heard of baptism for healing. It’s fascinating. Thank you for the post.

  • ceric

    Although you may not have heard of the specific process, don’t many thousands of people go to temples seeking blessings for themselves as, even as they serve and strive to bless the lives of their kindred dead?
    The article is nice, but it seems to skip an important point, or at least mis-portray something. As though Heber J Grant were just some modern leader who suddenly popped into existence and didn’t understand or agree with the practices of the pioneers.
    Pres. Grant was trained for decades by the very leaders who were aware of and participated in the practice.

  • J. Stapley

    ceric, if you get a chance to read the entire article linked to in this post, you will see that Grant was not only aware of it, but participated in the practice.

  • LDS Anarchist

    Baptism for heal, re-baptism, using bread and wine (not just water) for the sacrament, as well as a host of other early rituals is starting up again among certain latter-day saints as tribal worship services. I suppose I, myself, will be the first LDS rebaptized in the modern age, unless someone beats me to it.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    As discussed in an article at SquareTwo, if God desires we be healed, He can do it through the ordinance of Melchizedek Priesthood blessings. It is not necessary to do any other ordinances, as if we are going to get a different answer from God through a different ordinance.
    The notions promoted by LDS anarchist, to create some kind of “more Mormon than thou” worship, bears the marks of the kind of “looking beyond the mark” claim to be more holy than the regular Latter-day Saints that is a signpost on the way to apostacy. As D&C 121 makes clear, any attempt to exercise the priesthood outside the terms that God has set through the living prophets is a vain exercise that terminates any real godly authority. It is a manifestation of pride, pure and simple, to think that you are smarter and more holy than the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, and that God will approve and ratify actions you take that are contrary to the express counsel of the leaders God has called.
    No one has authority to baptize someone who has not been interviewed and approved by the bishop or the equivalent appointed leader. No one has authority to baptize, for healing or for membership in the Church, without approval of the bishop or stake president. You certainly cannot perform a “healing baptism” as described above outside a temple, and cannot do it inside a temple because that would be contrary to the direction of the authorized leaders of the Church.
    Anyone who pursues anarchic abuse of the priesthood is not upholding the leadership of the Church, and cannot honestly qualify for a temple recommend.
    You can always go off and start your own church (even science fiction writers like L. Ron Hubbard can do it), but you are being dishonest if you claim to be within the authorized scope of Mormon priesthood exercise when you explicitly reject the counsel of the Church’s leaders, those who hold the keys of all ordinances, especially within the temples.

  • LDS Anarchist

    Thanks for the concern, Raymond, but none of what you say applies to tribes and tribal ordinances. The priesthood when used within a tribe becomes a tribal priesthood. When using priesthood in a church setting, you need church permission. When used in a tribal setting, the tribe has jurisdiction, not the church. So, no, I am not on the road to apostasy, nor have I disqualified myself from entering the temple.

  • Justin

    Wow Raymond,
    Here I was thinking that whosoever among the saints are sick, and have not faith to be healed, should call on the elders of the church [two or more] for them to pray for and lay their hands upon them in the name of Jesus in the hopes that they will live. [D&C 42: 43-44]
    But — you say that God has to do any healing thru the administration of Melchizedek Priesthood Blessings™. I guess healing is no longer a sign that follows them that believe — only them that are men with the priesthood. Interesting.
    I wonder if you can tell me, Raymond Takashi Swenson, where in D&C 121 it is defined that the “principles of righteousness” are actually the bounds set by the First Presidency™ and Quorum of the Twelve™?
    Perhaps you are unaware that tribal worship services and their associated pursuits in the anarchic use of priesthood — are not a way to go off and start one’s own church. But rather are a way to activate one’s tribal affiliations prior to the advent of the tribal kingdom of God.

  • Jana Riess

    Justin, I want to apologize to you that Beliefnet seems to have held your post in limbo for a while. I just went back to authorize the site to publish it. Sometimes, the software tags posts that appear to have commercial overtones as spam. In your case, I think it was the trademark sign that triggered it.

  • J L Fuller

    Have ever wondered why there are two dozen different versions of the bible and over two thousand different Christian churches? Well, the Tribal thing should give you a clue. Some folks are more concerned with being in charge or different or elevating something over another than they are in being obedient and teachable.

  • J L Fuller

    One more thing to those who think they can follow a different gospel, be different and still go to the temple. Do know you know why they have keyed locks on the dressing room lockers? For some people obtaining a Temple recommend only means the bishop or the branch president was snookered. It happens all the time.

  • Justin

    It happens all the time.
    In a church that isn’t manifesting the gifts of the spirit — like the gift of discernment by “
    bishop[s] or the branch president[s]

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