Latter-day Saints and the Anointing of Jesus

My co-blogger Philip Jenkins is in the midst of a fascinating series of posts (most recently, here) related to the four gospel accounts of a woman anointing Jesus. In Luke’s gospel and also in John’s, a woman (Mary of Bethany, in John’s gospel) anoints Jesus’s feet and then wipes them with her hair.

Anointing at Bethany, ca. 10th century, Egbert Codex
Anointing at Bethany, ca. 10th century, Egbert Codex

While writing my book on The Mormon Jesus, I came across several instances in which Latter-day Saint women reenacted the very details of that scene with their husbands.

For instance, in 1853 Ruth Page became the plural wife of Samuel H. Rogers, who ten years earlier while a missionary in New Jersey had confirmed Ruth following her baptism. In 1879, Ruth’s husband was preparing to move with at least one of his other wives to a Mormon settlement in Arizona. He asked her to remain behind in Parowan, Utah.

Ruth answered that she “was willing if he would return the next fall and we could go to the Temple.” In accordance with this request, before the move Ruth and Samuel completed a sacred ordinance most commonly known as the “second anointing.” Samuel noted in his diary that this took place on the fifty-second anniversary of Joseph Smith receiving the plates of the Book of Mormon from the Angel Moroni. “I dedicated the house and room,” Samuel wrote, “also blest the Oil after which my Ruth Anointed my feet and wiped them with the hair of her head, then kissed them after the patern as written in the Testament of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The tender scene is a remarkable imitation of Mary (as nineteenth-century Mormons identified the woman) and Jesus. The second anointing was a ritual or ordinance reserved for couples who had demonstrated a high level of commitment and worthiness. According to Brigham Young, the second anointing conferred “the fulness of the Priesthood, all that can be given on earth,” a promise that the recipients’ exaltation was certain. Anointed and ordained as kings and priests in anticipation of their future kingdoms, men now possessed the authority — the “keys” — to perform “all the ordinances belonging to the kingdom of God.” A wife in turn was priestess and queen “unto her Husband,” participating next to him in the governance of an eternal familial kingdom.

The ordinance consisted of two stages, as illustrated by the experience of Heber and Vilate Kimball in 1844. In a February 1844 journal entry, Heber Kimball wrote that he and his wife “was announted [anointed] Preast and Preastest unto our God under the Hands of B[righam]. Young and by the voys [voice] of the Holy Order.” At that ceremony, Young poured oil upon Kimball’s head, anointing him as a priest and king “unto the most High God in & over the Church.” Young promised his friend long life and that he would have the power to redeem his “progenitors … & bring them into thy Kingdom.” He also anointed Vilate Kimball “a Queen & Priestess unto her husband … & pronounced blessings upon her head in common with her husband.”

In the second stage of the ordinance, the wife and husband reprised the roles of Mary and Jesus. Two months later, Vilate Kimball prepared her husband for his “burial.” She washed Heber’s feet, then anointed his feet, head, and stomach. The ritual ensured their readiness to rise together when Christ returned, presuming they died before that event. Vilate Kimball wrote that she had anointed her husband so that she might “have a claim upon” her “dear companion” in the resurrection. She did so “even as Mary did Jesus.” Death would not separate them from each other or from the promises and blessings conferred upon them by the priesthood.

Between the early 1840s and the 1920s, tens of thousands of Latter-day Saints (in their lifetimes or posthumously) received their second anointings. Thereafter, the ordinance became rare, bestowed on only very high-ranking leaders and their wives. Church leaders rarely discuss the ordinance, though recent publications (such as the Joseph Smith Papers volumes) have done so.

When Mormon men and women reprised the roles of Mary and Jesus, it implied that Mary and Jesus were husband and wife. Indeed, that belief was common and apparently uncontroversial among mid-to-late nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint leaders. Church leaders passed down the connection between the second anointing and that of Jesus at Bethany. In 1889, apostle and future church president Joseph F. Smith wrote the following to Susa Young Gates:

under certain conditions women have been ordained Priestesses unto their husbands, and set apart to rule and reign with them &c. Then comes the holy ordinance of “washing of feet” and anointing with holy ointment, as Mary administered to Jesus. The wife to the husband. This is a law of the Priesthood which Mary understood, having learned it of the Lord. And she received his blessing and approval for it. It was not confined to her nor to the Lord, but so much was given out for a key to the truth.

Mary, in this formulation, administered to Jesus in the manner of a “wife to the husband.”

Joseph F. Smith made this connection in a private letter, but he and other high-ranking leaders (including Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, and George Q. Cannon) publicly asserted that Jesus had married and fathered children on earth. After the church’s definitive abandonment of new plural marriages in the early twentieth century, such talk publicly disappeared. While a good number of Latter-day Saints believed that Jesus indeed married during his earthly life, the church has made clear that it takes no official position on the matter.

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