Priesthood Blessings: A Matter of Form or Substance?

Recently we had some illness in our family. There is not much in this world that I have faced which is worse than having sick children. Particularly when the afflicted one is a baby who can’t talk yet, such times are difficult to endure. There is a constant nagging worry about what to do- go to the doctor? Put the child to bed? WHAT?!? Anyway, when our baby was sick last week, as well as my wife and my other children, it seemed as though a dark feeling had settled upon the Fowles house. We felt unsettled and anxious.

We were so thankful to be able to call our neighbor from around the corner to come and help administer in healing blessings. The feelings of darkness and anxiety were replaced with light and calm reassurance as we blessed my children to heal them in the name of Jesus Christ. Truly, Jesus Christ is the light of the world and the Prince of Peace, as was confirmed to our hearts once again as we performed that temporally saving priesthood ordinance. And priesthood as restored to Joseph Smith is His power.

Yet after the adminstrations, I had to pause and wonder: what if the Brother from around the corner had not been able to come help me annoint? I’m sure it would have been fine- necessity would have dictated that I do both the annointing and the sealing myself. But that got me wondering about why we even need to bother with 2 brethren then. Furthermore, when the good Brother came to my aid, he took the time to put on a white shirt and a tie before coming, even though it was evening. I did the same, out of habit. What if neither of us had bothered to put on nicer clothes? Would the blessings have been any less efficacious?

This all got me wondering about why we even need to annoint in the first place? I know there is scriptural basis for it, and that this is simply how priesthood blessings are given- but why? Would the Lord withhold special blessings from an infant because the formality of annointing was not completed? I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing a merciful God would do. It seems like the Spirit could dictate just as surely the healing words with or without oil beforehand, though. And it seems to me as though the substance of the priesthood ought to overcome the form of the ritual performed. So are we concerned with form or substance in priesthood blessings?

Brother Knight also poses a similar question– he discusses how many people in his ward tack on a perfunctory “if it be the will of the Lord” to their blessings and attach great importance to those words. But do those words really do any work?

Throughout the Old Testament, form seems all pervasive and seems like it might trump substance. Complex rituals are laid out for nearly every ordinance and sacrifice. In the New Testament, however, the new gospel wine seems to be rich with substance and generally unweighted by form. But in today’s church, a great deal of emphasis is placed on form. Our most sacred rituals are laden with form.

So here’s a chance for you gospel scholars to weigh in. Are priesthood rituals a matter of form or substance? Which is more important? If they are both of equal importance, then what should we do if we aren’t able to follow the form? Can we give priesthood blessings for healing unpreceded by the annointing ritual?

I am very interested in your thoughts, and especially interested in your thoughts backed up by scripture/modern statements of General Authorities on this matter (although I would also be happy to just hear your own thoughts, without any scripture). If this has already been done at T&S, I apologize- send me the link and this will be a short discussion!

(Now back to my study of form versus substance in the land of contracts, where substance definitely rules the day these days- except of course for that pesky statute of frauds…)

8 Responses to Priesthood Blessings: A Matter of Form or Substance?

  1. Anonymous says:


    Posted by john fowles

  2. Anonymous says:


    Posted by test

  3. Anonymous says:

    This shoud work now. 

    Posted by Ebenezer

  4. Anonymous says:

    What if neither of us had bothered to put on nicer clothes? Would the blessings have been any less efficacious? 

    I think that the blessing would definitely still be efficacious absent the white shirt and tie. That is just a way of showing respect for the power that you hold. People do it because they want to please the Lord when exercising his power.

    As to the oil, I am inclined to think that the oil itself is the most important part of the annointing of the sick. The blessing tacked on afterwards is just fluff, so to speak, so that the person can hear the will of the Lord to him or her. The healing comes from the annointed oil, which has been set apart for the healing of the sick and afflicted. It is not just set apart through empty formalities, but through the true priesthood of God. These formalities are indeed necessary and are part and parcel with the priesthood power, in my estimation. That said, I am too much a pragmatist myself to think that God would withhold a blessing administered with the true priesthood in an emergency situation where no annointed oil is present. 

    Posted by john fowles

  5. Anonymous says:

    I tend to think that there is so much form associated with the ordinances of the gospel because we’re all dufuses. The only way that the Lord can assure the recipient of the ordinance that it is efficacious is to add some stuff that is essential. What if the guy giving the blessing was not in tune and was not talking the will of the Lord? It’s okay because you got the anointing in there and it is hard to screw that up.

    As to the “thy will be done” disclaimer in blessings: I think it shows 1) a lack of belief and 2) a lack of faith. If you’re going to throw it onto the blessing, why not just stop the blessing right after sealing the anointing and then offer a separate prayer with the caveat that the Lord’s will be done.

    Posted by J. Stapley

  6. Anonymous says:

    I think there are two reasons to follow the form. First is that the Lord has asked us to do it. Perhaps it is a formality that can help us to have faith like Moses’ staff, We are certainly, as J says, dufuses, but God knows that, and he realizes that despite his best efforts we’ll be duffuses for a while, so he makes these things directives rather than suggestions since we’d get too sure of ourselves, and he does expect us to make every effort to comply. What if Moses had simply said, no lord, I won’t use the stick? I think God would have had a problem with that response.

    The God asked us to do it response only leads us, however, to why he asked us to do one thing rather than some other, and I think that most of the form of the gospel has to do with teaching us principles that we don’t recognize, what we might call symbolism, though I am more skeptical about the term than most because of my training in literary studies. Most people assume it means someone could come in and tell them what the symbol stands for and save them the time of thinking about it. I think, though, that the form of our ordinances can teach us a lot about the substance. The temple would be the most commonly observed example of this, but I think it applies to the other ordinances as well, including the blessing of the sick. The fact that two priesthood brethren act together says something to me about our reliance on others to keep us on the paths of righteousness, and to act as witnesses, though, of course, there are times when we have to act alone. Perhaps that is part of the “symbolism” of form itself–to remind us we are always acting in concert with god, not of our own power, when we administer ordinances. The shirt and tie are ways of showing respect, as John Fowles points out, though I don’t know that they would be as fixed as other parts of the blessing. Ties weren’t given to adam in the garden, though I do still believe it’s a good idea to wear them when performing an ordinance. Laying our hands on the person’s head says to me that we are performing work, just as surely as if we were digging or lifting. The oil has been much commented on–the fact that it is olive oil, which has so much significance. For instance, see:

    The Olive Press Truman G. Madsen, “The Olive Press,” Ensign, Dec. 1982, 57 

    In This Holy Land Russell M. Nelson, “In This Holy Land,” Tambuli, Feb. 1991, 11Why This Holy Land? Russell M. Nelson, “Why This Holy Land?” Ensign, Dec. 1989, 13As regards whether or not oil is essential, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:

    “There have been cases, sad to relate, where elders of the Church, through lack of understanding, have refused to administer to the sick under conditions where oil could not be had. It is the privilege and duty of the elders to bless the sick by the laying on of hands. If they have pure olive oil which has been consecrated for this purpose, one of them should use it in anointing the sick, and then they should by the laying on of hands seal the anointing. If no oil is to be had, then they should administer by the laying on of hands in the power of the priesthood and in the prayer of faith, that the blessing sought may come through the power of the Spirit of the Lord. This is in accordance with the divine plan inaugurated in the beginning.” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 3:183.)
    I Have a Question Rand A. Christensen, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Oct. 1991, 60
    As concerns the “thy will be done, I think it’s fine for when we don’t trust our ability to seek the Lord’s will because of personal feelings or when we aren’t sure of ourselves, but we should seek the Lord’s will and when we know it act with faith. See my comments here.P.S.–I love It makes it easy for anyone to look like they are just walking around with this stuff stuffed in their brains and can quote multiple authorities on any issue off the top of their heads. 

    Posted by Steve Hancock

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Steve- that was very helpful! And interesting!

    Thanks again! 

    Posted by jordan fowles

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