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Medical Practices

by Cecil O. Samuelson, Jr.

At the time the Church was established (1830), medical science was in its infancy. Fundamental mechanisms of disease were just beginning to be understood, and modern diagnostic approaches and notions about infection were only embryonic. Medical treatment for most conditions was ineffective and sometimes harmful. Early Church leaders, including the Prophet Joseph Smith and President Brigham Young, urged reliance on faith and priesthood blessings and treatment with herbs and mild food. Consistent with advances in medical science and education, Church leaders, including Brigham Young, began about 1870 to rely more on professionally trained physicians than in earlier years. Since that time, Latter-day Saints have been urged by their leaders to take advantage of the best possible medical care along with availing themselves of appropriate priesthood blessings.

In the early nineteenth century, practitioners trained in orthodox medicine relied heavily on bleeding and calomel (mercurous chloride) purges, treatments that were sometimes fatal. Joseph Smith lost his brother Alvin in 1823 when calomel, prescribed for what may have been appendicitis, lodged in his intestines, causing gangrene. This was one of several unfortunate experiences that supported a family inclination against these methods (sometimes called "heroic medicine").

Other practitioners, including Willard Richards, an early member of the Quorum of the Twelve, were trained (most often self-trained) in the Thomsonian system, which used various botanical products, water, and massage. Neither allopathic nor homeopathic in orientation, Thomsonian medicine was perhaps closest to today's naturopathy. While not aggressively dangerous, as were many of the then common practitioners of quackery or some of the orthodox practitioners, most often the Thomsonians could do little more than offer kindness.

In 1831 Joseph Smith received the following revelation regarding health care: "And whosoever among you are sick, and have not faith to be healed, but believe, shall be nourished with all tenderness, with herbs and mild food, and that not by the hand of an enemy…. And again, it shall come to pass that he that hath faith in me to be healed, and is not appointed unto death, shall be healed" (D&C 42:43, 48). Many Latter-day Saints from that era recorded remarkable healing experiences following priesthood blessings.

Against this background, Brigham Young, who succeeded Joseph Smith, cautioned Church members against heroic medical care and emphasized reliance on common sense, safe and conservative treatments, and blessings by the priesthood. While critical of both the medical profession and individual practitioners on occasion, he acknowledged their value with fractures and some other conditions.

Medical science advanced rapidly in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and Brigham Young began to rely on physicians for more of his own medical care. During the decade beginning in 1867, he was responsible for sending several of the most gifted young men and women in the Church, among them his nephew Seymour Young, to medical schools in the East. Brigham Young died in 1877 of what his nephew later concluded must have been appendicitis.

Today, many LDS women and men are involved in health care practice and research. Church members, who are advised to seek medical assistance from competent licensed physicians, generally believe that advances in medical science and health care have come though the inspiration of the Lord. They also continue to seek priesthood blessings together with appropriate medical care.

[See also Hospitals; Maternity and Child Health Care; Daily Living home page; Attitudes Toward Health, Medicine, and Fitness home page.]

Bibliography

Bush, Lester E. "The Mormon Tradition." In Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in Western Religious Traditions, ed. R. Numbers and E. Amundsen, pp. 397-420. New York, 1986.

Divett, Robert T. Medicine and Mormons: An Introduction to the History of Latter-day Saint Health Care. Bountiful, Utah, 1981.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, Medical Practices

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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