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Carolyn Allen
Monday, March 25 2013

Joseph Smith and Herbal Medicine in Nauvoo

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This is the second in a three part series on Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, herbs and medicine in the early history of the Church.  The articles are based on the book “Joseph Smith and Herbal Medicine” by John Heinerman, (referred to in this article as JS&HM) Bonneville Books in 2009.

It has been said that a Missouri minister visited Nauvoo and made the candid observation that he could “find no trace whatsoever of any medical doctors in Nauvoo, as the Mormon leader just won’t allow them here.” (JS&HM p. 37) While that is doubtful and the minister himself stayed with a family on the other side of the river who employed a medical doctor, the Prophet Joseph did record in his journal for the date of September 5, 1841:

“I preached to a large congregation at the stand, on the science and practice of medicine, desiring to persuade the Saints to trust in God when sick, and not in an arm of flesh, and live by faith and not by medicine, or poison; and when they were sick, and had called for the Elders to pray for them, and they were not healed, to use herbs and mild food.”  Documentary History of the Church, Volume 4, p. 414. 

(For the principle of definition, an herb is a plant of economic value; specifically one used for medicinal purposes, or for its scent or flavor.)

This would have been comfortable counsel for the early saints in Nauvoo who had emigrated to Nauvoo came from other religions where most were well read in the Bible.  For many, it was their primary source of reading and schooling.  Both the Old Testament and the New Testament, along with the Savior’s sermons, have frequent mention of plants and herbs, so this was a familiar source of reference.

Joseph’s  feelings for being pro-herb and anti-medicine were based on both personal experiences with doctors in his early years,
  and the revealed word in Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, known as “The Word of Wisdom.”  Though rarely ill himself, when he was, he would call upon those type of men in whom he believed most sincerely, the herbalists known as “botanical physicians.”

Friday, December 15, 1843.  I awoke this morning in very good health, but was soon suddenly seized with a great dryness of the mouth and throat and sickness of the stomach and vomited freely.  My wife waited on me, assisted by my scribe and Dr. L. Richards, who administered to me herbs and ?? – (smudged and unable to make out two words) milder drinks.  I was never prostrated so low in so short a time before. But by evening, I was considerably revived.” (Journals of Joseph Smith)

The “Dr. L. Richards” to whom he refers was Levi Richards, the brother of Willard Richards, Nauvoo’s primary botanical physician and a convert from Massachusetts.  Willard had been trained in the Thomsonian Botanical Method from Samuel Thomson himself (see
previous article for more information about Samuel Thomson.)  They and their third brother Phineas, another botanical physician, treated their patients with ‘warm medicines’ of which cayenne and lobelia were two principal ingredients.  He also used mild herbs, but no “poison pills,” i.e. the calomel that had killed Joseph’s brother Alvin.  As noted, Willard became the primary botanical physician in Nauvoo, while Levi served as the surgeon general of the Nauvoo Legion, and was the personal physician to the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum.  Joseph wrote, “I will say that Levi Richards is the best physician I have ever been acquainted with.” Their brother Phineas is best remembered for a mold that he would use to make herb pills as “large as horse chestnuts.” (JS&HM p. 43)

Under the influence of these brothers, Joseph established a Board of Health in the early 1840s that advocated the use of herbs and botanical medicine, but greatly restricted others who did not know herbs and how to use them.  There was even a dentist in Nauvoo who followed the Thomsonian Botanical method, Alexander Neibauer.  He was a Jewish man from Prussia who was the first Jew to be baptized into the church.  He was introduced to the gospel and baptized along with his wife in 1838, while studying dentistry in Preston, England.  

Joseph believed that the sisters should also be involved in aiding the sick as much as possible and remarked-

“…God gave his sanction by healing; that there could be no more sin in any female laying hands on the sick, than on wetting the face with water; that it was no sin for anybody to do it that has faith, or if the sick has faith, to be healed by the administration. (Minutes of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, March 17, 1842.  L.D.S. Church Historian’s Office)

He even went so far as to set some men and women apart to the office of ministering unto the sick, including women to serve as midwives and nurse. Ann Carling was one of three specially called midwives he personally set apart. In her blessing she was told that she would be successful in caring for the sick if she would use herbs exclusively in her work. Some years later in Utah she became known as the “herb doctor,” personally growing and processing the herbs for the use of her patients. Other women were set apart as “nurses in Israel.” They would sometimes accompany him on his rounds to the sick, and assist in administrations to them. A Dr. Calvin Crane was also set apart to care for the sick. He made remedies from roots and herbs that he gathered and compounded into pills.

As would be expected, the midwives had a strong bond of sisterhood and worked together. They met and discussed the spiritual aspects of their work, quoting Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and proclaimed the blessings of health and mercy for their patients that they had experienced after being set apart. Patty Sessions, one of the three midwives, became one of Utah’s foremost early midwives. Her medical reports were very objective, but her personal journals revealed her deep testimony of the restored gospel, and the inseparable nature of practicing medicine while serving God under the mantle of the Priesthood.

Some of the herbs used by these early LDS health practitioners were:

  • Salve for old sores: Bark of indigo-weed root, boiled, beeswax, mutton tallow, and a little rosin.
  • Jaundice: Take one tablespoon of castile sop shavings, mixed with sugar, for three mornings, then miss three mornings until it has betaken for nine mornings … a “sure cure.”
  • Bowel complaint: Take one teaspoonful rhubarb, one-fourth carbonate of soda, one Tbsp. brandy, one tsp. peppermint essence, half-cup of warm water. Take by the tablespoonful once an hour until the bowels move.
  • Heartburn: Laudanaum, carbonate soda, ammonia, sweet oil, camphor. Also good for milk leg inflammation or sweating.

Even with their training and settings apart, however, these early health leaders considered and used faith in the Lord to be their first tool for healing.


  1. Those named in this article were not the only practicioners of the Thompsonian method of herbal medicine in Nauvoo. Orlando Hovey, who joined the Church in 1839 in Quncy, IL before Nauvoo was founded, had been practicing for a number of years. He moved to Nauvoo and continued his practice there. He continued this practice after moving west with the Saints in Salt Lake City. He was always refered to as "Doctor" although he never attended a medical school. The state of the art of medicine in Joseph Smith's day was still very primitive (blood letting, leaches to remove bad 'bile', etc.) Brigham Young, in his early addresses in the Journal of Discources, decries the "quackery" of medicine. However, in his later addresses he praises doctors and medical practice. Why? The answer lies in Brigham Young's longevity and the advance of medical knowledge during those intervening years: the discovery of anesthetic, aneseptic, the role of germs in disease, etc.
  2. Another prominent doctor in both Nauvoo and in Deseret, Priddy Meeks was a self-educated Thomsonian physician. He saved the lives of people who were given up to die by local doctors. Meeks was appointed by Joseph Smith to be in charge of the Health Department at Nauvoo, Illinois. He later held a similar position in Salt Lake City.
  3. So, why isn't it marketed as a "mild drink" and avoid the conflict with the Bretheren's statement that "tea" is against the Word of Wisdom?
  4. Leaves, and maybe buds also (?) specifically from the Camellia sinensis plant is what is usually referred to as "tea", including iced teas. Steeping other leaves or buds, like peppermint or rose hips, are "herbal drinks". I think people still say "tea" because it's steeped.
  5. Maybe instead of being anti-science/medicine we could accept these blessings from God. Herbs and salves are good for a lot of things, but I guarantee herbal tea isn't an effective remedy for major diseases and ailments.

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