Brethren Encyclopedia

            One of the practices common to all Brethren is the ordinance of anointing the sick with oil in the name of the Lord as instructed in James 5:13-16. Bible references to anointing are numerous and include both anointing with oil as a physical act and anointing by the Holy Spirit in a spiritual sense. The act was associated with refreshment or cosmetic purposes (Dt. 28:40; Ruth 3:3; Ps. 104:15), hospitality (Lk. 7:36-50), occasions of joy (Ps. 45:7), funeral rites (Mt. 26:12; Jn. 19:40), the consecration of objects (Jacob's pillar, Gn. 31:13; tabernacle appointments, Ex. 30:23-30; 40:10), investiture of kings (1 Sam. 10:1, 16:1-13; 2 Kg. 11:12), and the consecration of priests (Ex. 29:7; Lev. 8:12,30).

            Anointing also related to medicinal usage. Oil was a part of the cleansing ritual for lepers (Lev. 14:15-18). Jeremiah spoke about the "balm of Gilead" (Jer. 8:22); and Jesus anointed sightless eyes with clay (Jn. 9:6, 11) and touched ears and tongue with saliva (Mk. 7:33-35). The disciples "anointed with oil many that were sick" (Mk. 6:13), and James instructed the Christians to anoint the "sick with oil in the name of tile Lord." (Jas. 5:13-16).

            References to spiritual anointing include Cyrus's anointing (Is. 45:1) and Habakkuk's reference to Israel as "thy anointed" (3:13). The Hebrews anticipated a divine deliverer who was to be anointed by the Lord (Is. 61:1). He came to be known as the Messiah, meaning the "Anointed One." Jesus appropriated the words of Is. 61:1 and affirmed that "the Lord ... has anointed me..." (Lk. 4:18). An anointing is conferred by God upon all Christians (2 Cor. 1:21, KJV; 1 Jn. 2:20,27).

            As they take the New Testament as their guide, the Brethren have readily identified with Jesus' healing ministry and the early churchís practices. Although there is no documentary evidence that the earliest Brethren practiced anointing, Morgan Edwards reported in 1770 that Brethren in Pennsylvania "anoint the sick with oil for recovery."

            The first reference in Annual Meeting minutes to the practice of anointing appears in 1797. The 1880 Annual Meeting decided that it could not improve upon the description of the procedure for anointing that was given at Annual Meeting in 1827 (art. 1): "... sing a few verses, and with a united prayer turn to God... Then ... the one (brother) reaches forth his hand and the other poureth oil on it, and the first puts the same on the head of the sick, and says ... ĎThou art anointed in the name of the Lord,í and thus three times, but the words only once said. Then both the brethren lay their hands upon the head of the sick, and pray over him ... "

            This is still the basic formula for all Brethren, although there are variations as each Brethren denomination practices its own understanding. The apostle James mentions the confession of sins as part of the ritual; hence the person to be anointed is given opportunity to confess sins or share a statement of faith. Following the declaration, "You are now anointed in the name of the Lord," the officiant adds, "for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, and for the healing of your body." A few drops of oil are placed on the officiantís fingers, which are then gently touched to the head of the person three times, once as each purpose is stated. Sometimes the three persons of the Trinity are invoked in conjunction with the threefold declaration of purpose. The prayer concludes with the Lordís Prayer.

            Among the Old German Baptist Brethren and Dunkard Brethren, only ministers and elders ordinarily administer the rite; in cases of necessity, deacons may assist. In the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, Brethren Church, and Church of the Brethren, deacons are permitted to assist, and, if necessary, to conduct an anointing. In the Church of the Brethren, a layperson other than a deacon may assist. Especially among Church of the Brethren and Brethren Church congregations, anointing is frequently administered to persons experiencing mental, spiritual, and emotional distress, or some form of brokenness. The 1963 Annual Conference (CB) permitted this in a thorough biblical, theological, psychological, and scientific statement on the nature of health, illness, and the significance and administration of anointing. The Pastorís Manual (CB) (1978) and worship resources guide, We Gather Together (CB) (1979) not only reflect this permission in their anointing rituals but also offer special services for persons with nonphysical needs. The Church of the Brethren and Brethren Church make provision for public anointing services, but the practice is limited. Generally, all Brethren await the summons of the ill before administering the ordinance.

            The rite is for healing. It is not a form of extreme unction or last rites. However, occasionally, persons at the point of death or with an illness considered to be terminal, ask for the anointing service, seeking the assurance, comfort, and peace of one wholly committed to Godís loving care which the service symbolizes. The service is given and received in the spirit of an abandonment that declares, "Not my will, but Thy will be done." Anointing with oil in the name of the Lord is a symbol of the gift, grace, and healing blessing of God. It is a means of grace, and generations of Brethren attest to physical and spiritual healing.

Harold Z. Bomberger
The Brethren Encyclopedia, ©1983