The last years of Joseph Smith's life saw an attempt to prepare the Saints for Zion across all aspects of life. Examples would include: in family life with the power to make relationships last beyond the grave; in political life with formation of the Council of Fifty as the first buddings of theocratic government, and economic life with the attempt to live the law of consecration. But did you know that there was also a substantial foundation laid for us relative to healthcare that extends far beyond the Word of Wisdom? And what's more, this healthcare system will most likely become increasingly important the closer we get to the coming of Christ.
It is true that, to become Zion, we must "stand independent above all other creatures beneath the celestial world (D&C 78:14)." In the words of Bruce R. McConkie, "We must become independent of the world. We must maintain our own health, sow our own gardens, store our own food, educate and train ourselves to handle the daily affairs of life." After all, "that religion which cannot save a man temporally cannot save him spiritually (Brigham Young)." It seems fitting, at least to me, that the Saints of God should have a means of treating illness that is set apart from the ways of the world, especially in light of the fact that we have "been taught from the very beginning that it was [our] privilege as well as [our] duty to seek unto God and to obtain answers from Him (Millennial Star, vol. 59)."
In Joseph Smith's day, the prescribing of inorganic mercury compounds (such as calomel), arsenic and opiates was common. It is well-known that Joseph's brother Alvin was killed by a strong dose of calomel, of which an autopsy performed showed that it had lodged in his intestine and caused gangrene to set in.
It was said that there were no orthodox medical practictioners in Nauvoo while the Prophet was alive. A Missouri minister once visited and "made the observation that he could find no trace whatsoever of any medical doctors in Nauvoo, as 'the Mormon leader wouldn't allow them there.'" (Joseph Smith and Herbal Medicine, Bonneville Books, 2009, pg. 37) Joseph Smith relied, instead, on his favorite botanical physician and brother of his private secretary, Levi Richards, whose practices were consistent with a revelation given to Joseph Smith years earlier, in Kirtland:
The above revelation was the backbone of Nauvoo healthcare. In addition to the practice of the laying on of hands by the elders of Israel, the Prophet set apart other individuals to minister to the sick. Ann Carling, who became known as the "herb doctor" later on in Utah, was told by Joseph Smith in her setting-apart that she would be successful in caring for the sick if she would use herbs exclusively for her work. Vienna Jacques and Patty Sessions were also set apart as "nurse[es] in Israel. Dr. Calvin Crane Pendleton was set apart in Nauvoo to care for the sick "receiving but little income from his medical services[. He] earned a livelihood in his shop as a mechanic, and by his pen."
Those set apart to care for the sick often had herb gardens and prepared their own tea and medicine from roots and herbs. Incidentally, Swiss convert Nette Anna Furrer, who emigrated to Utah and who was a nurse, physician and surgeon, was told by Brigham Young that her mission was to care for the sick and needy without payment and that "great would be her blessing (Our Pioneer Heritage 6:398)."
I think it's interesting to consider whether or not modern medicine is that changed from the medicine of Joseph's day. Is the way we treat disease in the 21st century very different from how it was done in the 19th century? Are our drug prescriptions any less toxic? Don't we still make use of poisons such as mercury in modern medical treatments such as vaccinations? In a general epistle of 1852 Brigham Young did not mince words: "...quit taking poisons, and poisonous medication, which God never ordained for the use of men..."
We slipped out of the habit of relying on herbs, mild foods, fasting and cleansing for treating our sick generations ago. But, thank goodness, still with us is the gift of priesthood blessings. Elder Dallin H. Oaks remarked that "current increases in national disasters and financial challenges show that we will need this power even more in the future than in the past."
Contrary to what we might think, having faith to be healed does not always (or maybe even ever) imply sitting back and letting the power of the Priesthood do all the work. Take Amanda Barnes Smith as an example. When her son's hip was shot off in the massacre at Haun's Mill, she looked at him and said "I knew naturally, he must be a cripple but I knew that the same God that formed the first bone could form another." She did not have access to professional medical help. As she put it, there was "none but God as our physician and help." So what she did was to pray for God to direct her in what to do. She ended up taking the ashes of the fire and cleaning the wound. Then she made a poultice out of the roots of the slippery-elm tree and filled the wound with it and poured balsam on it and dressed it with linen. Her son was able to walk and run again due to the miraculous growth of a "flexible gristle" that grew where the bone had been.
I suspect we are living far beneath our privileges when it comes to healthcare. As a mother, I am encouraged by statements such as these:
Little by little, I am learning that this is true. I foresee a day when, instead of turning to those with medical degrees and certificates, the people of God will look to Him. I am also learning that true healing cannot be purchased with money.
What say ye?