“Emma Burton: Spiritual Healer” by Seventy Harry James Fielding

As published Restoration Studies II: 121-124 (1983)

Readers familiar with the Doctrine and Covenants will be aware of the provision in Section 24 that Emma Smith (wife of the prophet) be “called” and “ordained” under the hand of her husband Joseph. Many readers, however, will not be aware that a little over fifty years later history was to repeat itself when another Emma was “set apart” under the hands of her husband (also named Joseph). Emma Burton was, as history records for us, a truly remarkable minister for the Lord.

The first documentary evidence I have been able to discover is in a letter from Apostle T.W. Smith to Bishop Kelly. 1 In this letter, dated November 23rd, 1890, Smith condemned the “anointing and setting apart” of Emma Burton and said it was “a square out-and-out ordination.” He was also highly critical of “Brother Blair’s lobby of female helpers” but it is not clear who these were or if they had been “ordained” like Emma.

Although Smith talked of “ordination,” however, it appears that Emma dud not regard herself as being ordained. In a letter to President F.M. Smith, dated February 19th, 1919, she recalled her experience. She had been sick and was administered to by her husband. At the conclusion of his prayer Elder Joseph Burton said, “Emma, I seal upon thee the privileges and blessings of the Melchisedec priesthood.” Emma went on to say:

“As I thought it over, there could be no harm in it, there was no priesthood conferred, and very many enjoy the privileges and blessings of the priesthood, even though they are not sealed upon them, one of which is to accompany the elder on his missions and another of mine was the gift of healing.” 2

Emma Burton’s gift of healing was manifest before the blessing conferred on her by Joseph Burton. She tells how she and Joseph administered to a friend of hers in California (A Mrs. Sissen). Emma was able to discern that the woman was possessed by an “evil spirit,” and after a “season of prayer” the woman was healed. Emma also (in the same letter) gave a graphic account of curing a woman in Australia of sciatic rheumatism. She rubbed oil on her limbs and prayer for her each morning. In the course of doing this, she felt a movement under the woman’s skin and “at once recognized it as the affliction of an evil spirit.” The next time she prayed and rubbed the limb she encircled it with her fingers, and as she prayed she moved her hands downward and off the sister’s foot, all the time pressing firmly against the flesh. The woman was instantly healed.

Some time after Emma Burton had been blessed, she and Joseph Burton were sent as missionaries to Tahiti. There she was involved in numerous spiritual healings, casting out of devils, etc., several instances of which were documented to President Smith. These were some of her more noteworthy cures, but as she noted, “ordinary [incidents] with immediate healing results were going on all the time.”

Emma Burton had written to President Frederick M. Smith to allow him to publish her material in the Saints’ Herald. In a reply dated March 18, 1919 3 he and his associates in the Presidency indicated that it was “not wise or profitable” to publish the material at that time. The reasons thy gave were that it would “probably precipitate some controversy” over the question of women being involved in casting out devils, administering to the sick, etc. and that they had established an “editorial rule” expressing “extreme reservations” about publishing accounts of spiritual manifestations. They felt that this had been somewhat overdone in the past and that it could give the appearance of “boasting.” They informed Emma that her material would be placed in the hands of the historian “for preservation and future reference.”

Emma Burton, of course, brought fine ministry in many ways other than spiritual healing; however, this article is not the place to expand on these. Instead, I shall speculate on why the First Presidency did not want to publish Emma’s healing activities. In so speculating, I shall need to examine more closely the situation in Tahiti to see why the “controversy” mentioned by the First Presidency did not arise there. My thesis is that the potential controversy in the United States arose not from doctrinal nor scriptural bases but from the culturally ascribed expectations for women. It was a matter of cultural relativity.

In pre-Christian Tahiti manifestations (including prophecy and healing) were fairly common. Furthermore, although women were excluded from much of the formal religious life they could function as spiritual healers and sorcerers. There were many different ways of effecting cures for spirit sickness in Tahiti, but at least one – documented by Pearse in 1878 4 – shows a remarkable similarity to the method Emma Burton applied to the women with sciatic rheumatism in Australia. Thus Emma Burton was able to fit comfortably into the indigenous framework – she was not excluded by virtue of her sex from participating in spiritual healing and her methods were well understood and accepted by the Tahitians.

It is clear that Emma had the support of her husband in her healing activities; moreover it would appear that Joseph Burton quite openly encouraged other women to be engaged in the work of healing. In his journal 5 under a section headed “The Sisters’ Prayer Meeting,” he stated that the purpose of such meetings included “praying for the prosperity of the work in this mission and in all the world and also for the sick and afflicted.”

It seems that after the time of the Burtons in Tahiti, subsequent missionaries actively discouraged women from taking a part in spiritual healing. The early missionaries did not preach a gospel of cultural relativity and, at times, imposed alien worship forms and sacramental practices which were really quite inappropriate. Only in the last decade or so have we as a church begin to face the issue of truly being a World Church and allowing for cultural diversity in expressive activities such as worship and the sacraments. It is strange that we should have at the center of our heritage a revolt against creeds and inflexible dogma 6 yet take so long to realize that we have at times created our own inflexible dogma and in so doing have entered into the process of apostasy.

The reaction of the presidency to Emma Burton’s letter has to be interpreted in light of the prevailing cultural conditions in American in the early 1900s. The “puritan ethic,” which colored much of the early religious life in America, ascribed to women the role of “helpmates” to men. Women were generally expected to be subservient to men, although they possessed sanctions of their own which helped to influence some of the attitudes adopted and decisions made ostensibly by men. One historian draws attention to issues affecting the social status of women (including that of suffrage) and notes that “this problem had received conscious attention in the United States for far longer than in England” 7 Although it was not until 1919 that the “Anthony Amendment,” which gave women the right to cote, was added to the Constitution. The predominant power structures of the day were dominated by men; thus was equally true of the power structures in the church, which were dominated by priesthood. Because women were excluded from priesthood responsibility, they were ipso facto excluded from positions of power in the church.

Perhaps it was Emma Burton’s letter to President Frederick M. Smith, or perhaps the debate surrounding the “Anthony Amendment,” or possibly a combination of these and other factors, but in any event, in 1920 the Saints Herald carried a front page editorial entitled “The Position of Woman in the Church.” The following excerpts are from its conclusion:

“We are frank to say that we do not know of any scripture in any of the three books excluding women from the ministry. There have existed in the past historic reasons, economic, or social reasons, why woman has not been so set apart, because of her position in the social order. But it is of interest to note that Saint Paul refers to the excellent work of some sisters in his time, and that the commentaries and traditions would make of them deaconesses or at least ministers in a sense.

Yet on the other hand there is no distinctive statement in the revelations that women should be ordained to the ministry … until we have more specific statements no action can be taken. …” 8

Over sixty years later, the church is still awaiting “more specific statements.” Furthermore, it has taken a giant leap backward in the resolution (#1141) that was passed at the 1976 World Conference which states “that consideration of the ordination of women be deferred until it appears in the judgment of the First Presidency that the church, by common consent, is ready to accept such ministry”. I have several concerns about this resolution:

  1. How is it going to be possible for the First Presidency to determine “common consent” when intelligent and informed debate on the subject is denied opportunity?
  2. If a particular culture is ready “by common consent” to accept ministry in areas which are legally restricted to priesthood, are those in that culture going to be denied this ministry because the dominant middle-class American culture continues to impse its outdated and highly distriminatory values on that culture?
  3. The whole question of the ordination of women is part of a much broader issue which relates to the entire question of ordination and priesthood function. In the context of an expanding World Church it may not be possible to view priesthood authority as being equally applicable in all cultures. That is to say, because a person functions well as a priest or elder in Australia does not necessarily mean that he will be an effective priest or elder in Papua, New Guinea or Nigeria. This is a question which needs urgent, in-depth consideration.

Emma Burton was a dedicated and sincere minister in every sense of the word. I think of many such “unordained ministers” in my own country and overseas and my heart aches with an intensity that is impossible to describe. I stand with Enoch and share his tears as I think of the rich ministry that the church denies itself by clinging to outdated traditions that have no basis in scripture or in love. I feel the yearning of my God for all persons, bond and free, male and female, as he spoke to Enoch:

“Behold, these your brethren [date I add sisters also?]; they are the workmanship of my own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the garden of Eden gave I unto man [and woman] her [her] agency; and unto your brethren [sisters] have I said, and I also gave commandments, that they should love one another and that they should choose me their Father.” 9

As we move into the future with A Faith to Grow, let us firmly and with courage face the challenges and opportunities that confront us that we might work with God to create a World Church – one that is Rich in diversity and cultural expression; a church that truly encourages full participation in the living of the Word; a church that does not limit the potential for being in any individual or group because of class, age, race, culture, or sex. I want to be a part of such a church!


1. Kelly Papers, RLDS Library and Archives, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Auditorium, Independence, Missouri.

Note: The Saints’ Herald from August 23rd, 1890 (Vol. 37-34:548) recounts of Emma Burton’s ordination

2. Letter to F.M. Smith from Emma Burton, RLDS Library and Archives

3. Presidency reply to Emma Burton, RLDS Library and Archives.

4. Cited in A. Hooper, “Tahitian Folk Medicines,” Publication de la Societe Oceanistes 39 (1978).

5. Journal of Joseph F. Burton, ELDS Library and Archives.

6. “Joseph Smith Tells His Own Story,” Independence, Missouri: Herald House.

7. J. Hagan, ed., Europe and the World Since 1815 (Melbourne: Longmans, 1963).

8. Saints Herald, June 23rd, 1920

9. Doctrine and Covenants, 36:7A-7B (Independence, Missouri: Herald House, 1978).