Physical hardships plagued the Mormon pioneers as they crossed from New York to Utah in the late 1830's. Women not only faced the everyday difficulties presented by the environment, they also had to endure the emotion and physical hardships of giving birth along the way. Death became commonplace, and women as well as men searched their faith to find the support they needed to survive the trek. Elders, or male priesthood holders, would often lay their hands upon the head of the sick and state a blessing. The men of the church, however, were not perpetually present due to their duties to protect and build the new community, as well as their duties to other wives. Women's faith in the healing power of the blessings increased as they observed the recovery of the sick and, therefore, their desire for those blessings increased as well. So women took it upon themselves when the men were not present, and they utilized the power of spirituality to heal as often as they could. The opportunity to help increased with the formation of the Relief Society, a women's organization within the church intended to promote the spiritual well-being of the Mormon community and help those in need.
"Bro Daniel Hendrexs wife died on the 25 of july. left a littl daughter 2 weeks old who died 10 days afterwards. Mary spencer died about the first of aug. lost a babe Hyrum Spencer died about the middle of July between nauvoo & mount Pisgah" wrote one Mormon woman in her journal. Death and sickness surrounded Mormon women throughout their journey - some from environmental conditions and some, as in the case of the prophet Joseph Smith, from persecution. No matter what the cause, however, Mormon women relied heavily on their faith to provide the explanations and the cures. Eliza R. Snow wrote of one of her illnesses in her Trail Diary
|I have been very sick - ride on bed the last 2 days - sis. Sess. Lucina & sis. Leonard came to the wagon - the pow'r of God rested on me - my disease was rebuk'd & I prais'd the name of the Most High […] sis T &c. came to our place & we had another refreshing from the Lord. Praise him all ye Saints.
Revelation also played a part in these "refreshings," or healings. Often, after the women would perform the rituals of washing and anointing the sick with consecrated oil, one sister would speak in tongues and another would interpret the blessing. Minutes from one Relief Society meeting record:
|The Spirit of God rested upon us insomuch that every one present rose and bore their testimony and all felt that she [Mamie Steed] … [one sister] blessed Sister Mamie Steed in tongues, the spirit was so powerful it ran like electricity to the hearts of all present [Nellie Taylor interpreted] "I bless you that your blood shall be renovated and flow from the crown of your head to the souls of your feet, and you shall become a mother in Israel and a mighty instrument in the hands of the Lord in doing good among your Sisters"
The Relief Society provided more than just an opportunity to heal the sick, however. Organized on March 17, 1842, the Relief Society was to be organized "under the priesthood after a pattern of the priesthood" (qtd. Arrington 221). Gathering together in Nauvoo with Emma Smith presiding, the women of the church organized the new group, modeling it on the organization of the priesthood in the church. "The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized […] this society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time" stated Joseph Smith (qtd. Arrington 221).
Through the Relief Society women could not only perform healings, they also taught each other about the gospel, prepared themselves for public speaking, and ministered to both members and non-members in need. The sisters could take care of each other through this organization, and they could also defend and care for their faith and community. As their journey westward continued and the prophecies persisted, the women of the church found that the political preparation they received in the Relief Society could aid them in their battle to defend their church.