Voluntary vaccination is becoming a major topic of public debate. LDS Living recently published an article highlighting the Mormon church's pro-vaccination views.
In summary, here is a 1978 message from the church's First Presidency:
"We urge members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to protect their own children through immunization. Then they may wish to join other public-spirited citizens in efforts to eradicate ignorance and apathy that have caused the disturbingly low levels of childhood immunization.
Failure to act could subject untold thousands to preventable lifelong physical or mental impairment, including paralysis, blindness, deafness, heart damage and mental retardation.
Immunization campaigns in the United States and other nations, if successful, will end much needless suffering and erase the potential threat of epidemics. Such efforts are deserving of our full support.”
"Today, with the use of immunizations, these diseases are becoming more and more uncommon. In fact, they are so uncommon that many parents have become lax about immunizing their children. Some feel that there is no need; others fear adverse side effects. But parents have an obligation to protect their families through immunization."
A church manual from 2000:
"We can protect ourselves and our families from some diseases by getting immunizations. For some diseases we need only one immunization, but for other diseases we may need several immunizations at certain time intervals."
From an church-magazine article:
"The advantages of immunization overwhelmingly exceed the minuscule risks of receiving vaccines. Immunization renders an individual resistant to disease for varying time periods. Maintaining immunity may require a booster injection."
There is historic reason for such a pro-vaccination position. To review it, we need to go back over 100 years. At the turn of the century, the Mormon church was undergoing a major transition. The most public aspect of the transition was the shift away from polygamy. More relevant to the topic at hand however is the shift away from a heavy focus on faith-based healing and religious healing rituals.
In the 1800s Mormons had several religious healing rituals. The only one that remains in the church today is when [male] priesthood holders anoint the sick with oil and give them a blessing. However, women used to also anoint and bless the sick. The temple also played a significant role in healing rituals. Mormons used to practice baptisms for health in the temple (and at times outside of the temple). In this practice the most common method was to baptize the sick 7 times (reminiscent of the healing of Naman). Additionally, just as Mormon temples today have Temple Sealers (those who perform the ritual of sealing families together for eternity), temples used to also have Temple Healers. They would anoint the sick body part with oil and give a special blessing.
Healing rituals were deemphasized over a 20-30 year time period and after significant atrophy they were removed. Modern medicine was advancing and there was a move towards further embracing it. I say further because even in the mid 19th century Mormons had begun to embrace it. Brigham Young sent women to medical schools in the eastern US to become doctors (which was very progressive at that time).
Even as this transition towards modern medicine occurred, several Mormons (including leaders) still advocated for faith-based healing and shunned modern medicine. Speaking of smallpox vaccinations, Apostle Brigham Young Jr said that the vaccinations were:
"Gentile doctors trying to force Babylon into the people and some of them are willing to disease the blood of our children if they can do so, and they think they are doing God's service."
The issue of vaccination became heated because of smallpox. In Utah alone in 1899 and 1900 there were a reported 4,000 cases of smallpox and a reported 26 deaths. The emergency prompted Board of Health to send a mandatory notice to the Board of Education that no unvaccinated children could attend school. Mormons were split on how they viewed this compulsory vaccination and how to deal with smallpox.
Charles Penrose (of the church's First Presidency) as well as his wife, Dr. Romania B Pratt Penrose, championed those who opposed compulsory vaccination as an "encroachment" upon personal liberty. At that time, Penrose was the editor of the Deseret News and he used the paper to push his opposition to vaccination. Between this and many comments like those of Brigham Young Jr, most people in the state were convinced that the church leadership opposed vaccination. In reality, only a minority of church leaders held such a view.
By 1901 the Utah State Legislature passed a bill outlawing compulsory vaccination. However Governor Heber M. Wells vetoed this bill. On 21 Feb. 1901 Utah's legislature overrode the governor's veto and passed a law ending compulsory vaccination of school children. This resulted in Utah children being exposed to smallpox for many more years. Between 1900 and 1925 over 15,000 Utahns died of Smallpox.
In June 1904 Apostle Abraham Owen Woodruff and his first wife Helen died of smallpox after declining the counsel of LDS president Joseph F. Smith to be vaccinated before the young couple went to Mexico City. About twenty years later the First Presidency and Twelve agreed to take a stand in favor of compulsory vaccination.
So with that historical backdrop, the church's pro-vaccination stance should be even more clear.
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" Thursday, April 13, 1843….At 10 o’clock, The Emigrant and a great
multitude of others assembled at the Temple and prayer by Elder Kimball.
Joseph addressed the assemble and said:
“The doctors in this region don’t know much….Doctors won’t tell you how
to go to be well. They want to kill or cure you to get your money."
["]Calomel doctors will give you calomel to cure a sliver in the big toe
and does not stop to know whether the stomach is empty or not. Calomel on an
empty stomach will kill the patient and the lobelia doctors will do the same.
["]Point me out a patient and I will tell you whether calomel or lobelia
will kill him or not….
["]If you feel any inconvenience, take some mild physic two or three
times and then some bitters (herbs).
["]If you can’t get anything else, take a little salt and cayenne pepper.
If you can’t get salt take pecosia or gnaw down a butternut tree. Cut some
boreset or horehound….
["]I will give you advice that will do you good. I bless you in the Name
of Jesus Christ, Amen."
(The Journals of Joseph Smith, under
entry dated above; Church Historian’s
Office, Salt Lake City)
“…to get salvation we must not only do some things, but everything which God
has commanded. Men may preach and practice everything except those things
which God commands us to do, and will be damned at last. We may tithe mint
and rue, and all manner of herbs, and still not obey the commandments of God.
The object with me is to obey and teach others to obey God in just what He
tells us to do. It mattereth not whether the principle is popular or
unpopular. I will always maintain a True Principle, even if I stand alone in
— The Prophet Joseph Smith
(Documentary History of the Church 6:223)
(beginning of chapter 2)
“Sometime prior to the restoration of the Gospel in modern times, there
was another evolution of intelligence which burst forth in all of its glory
upon Mankind everywhere. This was the age of botanical science, when it took
its first great step forward in the form of a Samuel Thomson, America’s
original Botanic Physician. For, with him rests the credit and glory of
having founded and extablished a system of herbology which became the standard
of healing for many sound-thinking people in these days.
In his later manhood, when the Prophet Joseph Smith became aware of such
a wonderful system of cure, he had these fine commendations to offer about it: Joseph Smith said that Thomson was a much inspired to bring forth his principle of practice according to the dignity and importance of it as he was to introduce the gospel.
In other words, the Prophet was equating the gentile Thomson on the same
level with himself, saying as it were that both had been inspired of God in
their respective sciences — he, Joseph, in his new-found theology; and Mr.
Thomson in his herbal medicine."
(close to beginning of chapter 3)
We find the Prophet recording upon one such
occasion, when his father was severely ill: Went to visit my father. Found him very low. Administered some mild herbs to the commandment. May God grant to restore him immediately to health for Christ the Redeemer’s sake. Amen."
(further down in the chapter)
“Thus, many of the doctors of early Mormondom, but not all, were Thomsonians. At least three Thomsonians reached high positions in the Church. One was Frederick G. Williams; the other two were the Richards Brothers, Levi and Willard. In their positions they exerted considerable influence on the attitude of the Church towards medicine. Dr. Williams was Joseph Smith’s counselor during the early formative period of the church, Levi was Joseph Smith’s physician toward the end of his life, and Willard became first counselor to his cousin, Brigham Young, and the editor of the Church organ, the Deseret News. Thus, the seeds of the antipathy between Thomsonian or lobelia doctors and orthodox or ‘poison’ doctors, as the Utah pioneers called them, were sown in the minds of Church members."
(further down, same chapter)
“Joseph, said Willard, was dead set against the practice of medicine. But while Levi was traveling back to Nauvoo, Willard’s wife, Jeannetta, became ill. Levi was in St. Louis waiting for the frozen Mississippi’s ice to break up so he could continue his trip when Willard
- with Jeanetta’s approval -wrote for his professional advice. The time came Joseph Smith himself called upon Levi to attend him, and he once declared there was no better doctor in the world. But Levi prescribed no calomel. ….
But an even better glimpse into how Joseph Smith rated these men in
c[o]mparison to the standard medical skills available in those days, is
provided with this: Levi….was a surgeon-general of the Nauvoo Legion, and physician to the Prophet Joseph Smith and His brother Hyrum. In the Prophet’s journal under the date of April 19, 1843, is found this entry. ’I will say that that man (Levi Richards) is the best physician I have ever been acquainted with.’"
(1/4 – 1/2 through chapter 4)
A Missouri minister, on visit to Nauvoo from St. Louis made the
observations that he could find no trace whatsoever of any medical doctors in
Nauvoo, as “the Mormon leader wouldn’t allow them there.” In fact, he stayed
with one Mormon family just across the river, who employed the services of
medical physicians contrary to the advice of their Prophet. Thus, we can see
that not all Latter-day Saints were faithful to their Prophet’s words; yet we
have no evidence on record which says that God still did not love them,
provided they did not apostatize completely."
(beginning of chapter 5)
“LOBELIA — THE CORNERSTONE OF HERBAL FAITH (A description and Short History of the Most Popular Herb in Mormon Medicine)
Joseph Smith had this to say about the plant now in discussion: Dec. 26th, 1842. Visited Sister Morey in custody of Lee 1 (?) and prescribed for her afflictions; spoke very highly of Lobelia. Good in its place. Was one of the works of God. But like the power of God or any good, it became an evil when improperly used. Had learned the use and value by his own experience….
When the Prophet had suggested the use of this herb, he was recommending
one of the finest plants known to man. To acquaint the reader with "the most
powerful relaxant known among herbs" but one which leaves "no harmful
effects," the following short description is furnished for the reader’s
Doctrine and Covenants 89:10
10 And again, verily I say unto you, all wholesome herbs God hath ordained for the constitution, nature, and use of man—
Doctrine and Covenants 89:11
11 Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.
Doctrine and Covenants 42:43
43 And whosoever among you are sick, and have not faith to be healed, but believe, shall be nourished with all tenderness, with herbs and mild food, and that not by the hand of an enemy.
40 And there were some who died with fevers, which at some seasons of the year were very frequent in the land—but not so much so with fevers, because of the excellent qualities of the many plants and roots which God had prepared to remove the cause of diseases, to which men were subject by the nature of the climate—