The average active member of the LDS church has received, in his teenage years or early adulthood, what is called within Mormonism a patriarchal blessing. The blessing is given to him or her by a man who has been ordained to be a patriarch for 3,000 to 6,000 church members living in the patriarch’s geographical area. The patriarch gives the blessing by laying his hands on the recipient’s head and prophesying experiences and blessings which will occur in the recipient’s future. The prophecy/blessing usually includes exhortations to righteousness as well, and conditions the promised blessings on the person’s faithfulness in keeping God’s commandments.
One striking additional feature of all such blessings is the patriarch’s declaration of the person’s descent from one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The specific tribe is always named. The Israelite tribal declaration is provided regardless of the individual’s known ethnicity. The overwhelming majority of church members are declared to be descended from the tribes of Ephraim or Manasseh. Usually, Native Americans, Latinos, and brown- or black-skinned individuals from races around the world are declared to be from Manasseh, and whites are almost always designated as being from Ephraim.
LDS patriarchs receive no formal training on how to discern the futures of those who receive blessings from them, but Mormons are taught to believe that the patriarch, after being ordained to that office, acquires the gift from God to foretell future events in the life of the church member. The practice of ordaining patriarchs, and providing patriarchal blessings to individual church members, began in the 1830s during Mormonism’s early years.
In analyzing whether this uniquely LDS practice is consistent with God’s will for His church, I feel it necessary to begin by stating my thoughts and feelings about my own patriarchal blessing. Readers may thus judge for themselves whether my analysis of the practice is unduly influenced by my reaction to what my area patriarch told me in my blessing. I received my blessing one Sunday at my church meetinghouse after the stake patriarch showed up and told my father, who was the bishop, that he was there to give patriarchal blessings. Accordingly, Dad instructed me to go into one of the classrooms with the patriarch, which I did. I was sixteen, and had not prepared or planned for this occasion, though I was well aware of the practice and how it worked, and had expected that at some point, I would receive my blessing the same as everyone else. I was alone in the little classroom with the patriarch, whom I knew by sight and name but had never spoken to before. The elderly man turned on his tape recorder, laid his hands upon my head and delivered the blessing while I listened attentively. Not many days later, I received a typed transcript of the words he had spoken.
As it turned out, the blessing I received that day didn’t disappoint me, except where it admonished the performance of much genealogy work and regular temple attendance to facilitate vicarious temple rites for my undiscovered deceased ancestors. Even at that early age I didn’t want to hear this exhortation, for despite my pronounced youthful religiosity, I was nevertheless unconvinced of the necessity of such rituals for dead people. (I never did become convinced that these rites were from God. And indeed, many years later, I concluded, after much study and thought, that though he was a righteous, well-intended man, if the patriarch were truly inspired of God, he wouldn’t have exhorted me to spend effort on this doctrinally erroneous practice.) But the rest of my patriarchal blessing was generally what I hoped for, though it failed to promise me I’d become a general authority in the Mormon church some day, which I wished for, and had heard David O. McKay’s blessing had promised him. I was of the tribe of Ephraim, it declared. It told me I had a gift of healing, and would use it during my mission and my life thereafter. It predicted I would reach the pinnacle of the goal that I set for myself in my profession, and admonished me to take my academic studies seriously and pray always. It said I would one day marry in the temple and with my wife welcome special spirits into the world. Although most of its promises turned out to be true, I’ve never known how to measure whether I reached the “pinnacle of the goal” that I set for myself, since I had several profession-related goals, and some were realized and some weren’t. And, I felt that virtually all of the predicted accomplishments or events were going to happen anyway as a result of the course my life was already following. They seemed easily predictable, whether the stake patriarch was inspired or not.
I do not think, looking back, that my current analysis of patriarchal blessings is based on anything peculiar to my own blessing. Rather, it is based on some characteristics which I’ve learned, in the decades since I was sixteen, are common to all such blessings, and other characteristics which, though not universal, are common in a great many of them. Indeed, it seems impossible that any thoughtful person with long experience in the LDS faith could ponder this subject very long without the following questions necessarily coming to mind:
-Why is there no mention in the Bible or Book of Mormon of patriarchal blessings being given anciently to non-family members like they are today?
-Are all those patriarchs in the church really seeing the future when they give blessings?
-Are all the things predicted by Mormon stake patriarchs coming true, and if not, are the explanations satisfactory as to why those predictions fail?
-When people talk glowingly about their patriarchal blessings, and claim all the things predicted in them have come true, is the evidence sufficient to conclude that church patriarchs are truly inspired by God to foresee individual futures, and declare, amazingly enough, our unresearched genealogical lineage?
-Do people whose patriarchal blessings have failed to come true reveal that fact in church meetings as frequently as those who claim fulfillment of the promises made to them, or do members of the former group usually not speak at all about that subject?
-Are there pressures working on the minds of some people which would inhibit them from admitting in church that no important promises in their own patriarchal blessing have come true, even though they have lived righteous lives? If so, and if the explanation given to these people by fellow church members is that the predictions must not have been meant to apply to the person’s mortal life, but only to the post-mortal life, as I have seen happen more than once, doesn’t that mean the blessing was then superfluous, merely repeating what was already promised to virtually everyone in scripture?
-Are spectacularly unfulfilled patriarchal blessings a help or a hindrance to the recipient?
-Should I accept the practice of giving patriarchal blessings as being God-ordained without knowing the answers to the above questions?
Answering this last question requires a review of all the intellectual and spiritual evidence available. But of note, I remember that even as an orthodox and devoted sixteen-year-old Mormon, the practice of declaring genealogical descent in a patriarchal blessing seemed obviously uninspired and in error. I feel strongly now that the Holy Ghost, ever present to reveal falsehood as well as truth to those who seek its influence, was loudly whispering this to me. Even my youthful mind had concluded that in God’s economy, lineage meant exactly nothing to Him, insofar as it related to eligibility for salvation and eternal life. John the Baptist had famously explained that a person’s descent from Abraham meant nothing to God (see Matthew 3:9 and Luke 3:8); Jesus had taught that a good Samaritan (of mixed descent) was better than an uncaring pureblooded priest of the Israelite tribe of Levi (see Luke 10: 27-37), and the Lord revealed to Peter that “God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” (See Acts 10: 34-35.) Moreover, I had recently read in the Book of Mormon that God “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.’’ (See 2 Nephi 26: 33). Genealogical descent therefore wasn’t worth mentioning in an ostensibly important patriarchal blessing. It had no significance. And to this very day, no Mormon church leader has ever been able to logically explain why such a declaration of lineage should make any difference.
Aside from the immediately-apparent spiritual meaningless of being declared to be of Israelite lineage, the practice became increasingly problematic from an intellectual standpoint as I pondered it in succeeding years. It seemed against God’s methodology to grant patriarchs the ability to discern a person’s ancient lineage, when every other person on earth had to do much research just to trace their ancestry back 300 years. In fact, upon reading about the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi in church Seminary classes as a youth, I had reasoned that if determining ancient lineage was so easy as suggested by Mormon practices, why did Lehi have to read through volumes of genealogical records in the brass plates to discover that he was descended from Joseph and Manasseh? Why didn’t he save himself the effort and just have it declared to him by some patriarch, like modern-day Mormons do? And, why was virtually every patriarchal blessing recipient informed he descended from one of the twelve tribes, when we know that most people don’t descend from them, or if they have some Israelite blood, they have no more of it, or probably have less of it, than the blood from other peoples? And why were virtually every brown- or black-skinned recipient declared as descended from Manasseh, regardless of lacking affiliation with Lehi’s Lamanite posterity? The LDS church not only has never been able to answer these questions, it has never even tried.
In time, the conclusion became so strong that lineage declarations were not inspired of God that I no longer wasted time thinking about it. On several occasions I had either listened to talks by patriarchs, or spoken to them privately, and listened to what they’d said about the process of giving patriarchal blessings. One of them, whom I’d heard other Mormons describe as an unusually spiritual man, spoke freely, and even proudly, I felt, about how many people he’d declared to be of a different lineage than either of their parents. By definition, of course, this is impossible. In scripture, tribal descent was determined by reference to the lineage of one’s father, without exception. (Judaism currently allows “Jewishness” to be established automatically if the individual’s mother is Jewish, but that is a different subject.) This same patriarch had also given my son his patriarchal blessing. During it, he’d told my son he had a special mission to the tribe of Benjamin, but afterwards, when queried, he admitted he didn’t know anything about the tribe of Benjamin, except that “they are one of the lost tribes.” He was wrong on this point, of course; Benjamin has always been known as one of the two tribes that wasn’t lost. Further questioning by my son revealed the patriarch didn’t know how my son would ever know he was talking to a Benjaminite, nor of anyone who knew themselves to be descended from Benjamin, nor where these Benjaminites might live. So, if this spectacular-sounding prophecy came true, neither my son nor the Benjaminites would ever know it, and the accuracy of the prediction would remain undiscoverable. This experience was a new permutation of the problem of declaring blessing recipients to be of this or that Israelite lineage, but similar to the usual practice, it was useless, doctrinally baseless, and easily faked. I have concluded that the only reason this practice of identifying unverifiable lineages in patriarchal blessings has survived in Mormonism is because Mormons lack the desire to open a new can of worms, so to speak, and speak openly about the many errors inherent in it.
Aside from lineage declarations being doctrinally and logically wrong, however, time has also shown unnecessary harm is being done in the church by people feeling disrespected and diminished when they receive pedestrian blessings which tell them nothing that is unique to them or isn’t already obvious. In the case of a brother of mine, he had what he considered the misfortune of receiving his blessing from a new patriarch who hadn’t yet perfected the art of forseeing anything noteworthy. In fact, it turned out the only unique aspect of the my brother’s blessing was that it suggested, inaccurately, whom my brother would someday marry.
Another son of mine was told he would serve a mission for the church, return and marry in the temple, and raise a family during his earthly sojourn. But these things didn’t come to pass because he was killed in an automobile accident days after his nineteenth birthday. Had I been less experienced in the church, I might have relied too heavily on the expected fulfillment of the promises within my son’s patriarchal blessing, and been devastated when they proved uninspired. Fortunately, the blessing’s words, having never been relied upon to begin with, added nothing to the grief already felt by my wife and me when they went unfulfilled. But such is often not the case with other church members who take such promises on face value and cannot reconcile the unexpected outcome.
Familiarity with other blessings has shown just how common it is to have wonderful events prophesied to spiritually deserving people, without those events ever coming close to actually occurring. I once spoke extensively with a woman I home taught, who to her great disappointment had never married. Lamenting she’d never had the chance to be loved or bear children, she concluded as she wept that she must have sinned her way out of deservingness for the blessings of temple marriage and posterity which had been promised her in her patriarchal blessing. But of course, try as she might, she couldn’t think of any sinfulness that had so altered her future, and I couldn’t either, having known her for 30 years. Desperate to console her in some way, I told her that she was blameless, and that the patriarch who’d given her her blessing had promised wonderful events in this life, not because he was inspired to actually foresee them, but because he didn’t want to leave her disappointed by revealing that he couldn’t really see her future. Moreover, I explained, the patriarch, being human, undoubtedly thought the blessings he promised her were so predictable within a Mormon’s life that he could promise them without much risk of being wrong. I doubt my words were much consolation.
A search through the scriptures for any hint that patriarchal blessings were an ancient or important practice reveals that the only precedents were of the Isaac/Jacob/Lehi/Alma variety recorded in the Bible and Book of Mormon, where a family patriarch prophesied and/or admonished his own sons or grandsons regarding their futures. The declaration of previously-undiscovered lineage wasn’t recorded as having been included in such blessings, either, and no person in the Old World or the New World appears to have been designated to give such blessings to non-offspring, much less to strangers.
A review of LDS Church history similarly reveals a convoluted development of the idea and practice of giving patriarchal blessings. It is evident that Joseph Smith, Jr. demonstrated during his lifetime a pattern of trying to prop up his father, to afford him the dignity and respect that life had otherwise not conferred. The elder Smith had struggled with alcoholism, and through repeated financial failures had failed in his attempts to adequately provide for his family. Joseph Smith seemed eager to elevate his father’s status, and in December of 1834 (though Oliver Cowdery later erroneously recorded it as occurring in December of 1833) he ordained him to the position of “Patriarch.” See Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, (Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2005) 55, 262-3. (I actually like this story, truthfully, despite the scripturally-baseless practice it eventually spurred, as it manifests Joseph’s laudable desire to help his father achieve self-respect).
Historian D. Michael Quinn describes the evolution of patriarchal blessings in Mormonism in his book The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books,, 1994), 46-52. He writes that before Joseph Smith, Sr.’s ordination to the office of Patriarch, on February 19, 1834, Hyrum Smith and his brother Joseph had become the first recorded recipients of their father’s formal pronouncements of what he said were the “blessings of thy progenitors,” though their father was yet unordained as a patriarch. That same day, John Johnson, also unordained as a patriarch, gave a similar blessing “of his forefathers” to his adult son. Perhaps significantly, at that time, John Johnson and Joseph Smith Sr. were the two oldest members of the Kirkland High Council, which had been organized two days earlier.
Contrary to popular belief, Quinn explains, though Joseph Smith, Sr. had provided the first recorded patriarchal blessings in February of 1834,, he was not the first man in Mormonism to be ordained to the office of patriarch. Following the Smith and Johnson father-to-son blessings described above, Brigham Young’s family requested that Brigham’s father, John Young, Sr., be ordained as a patriarch “so that he can bless his family.” Accordingly, Joseph Smith performed the requested ordination in August of 1834, after which John Young, Sr. was able to provide blessings to his own sons. The formal ordination of Joseph Smith, Sr. to the office of Patriarch didn’t take place until December 6, 1834, performed by his son Joseph. In so doing, Joseph told the elder Smith he would be called “a prince over his posterity, holding he Keys of the patriarchal priesthood over the Kingdom of God on earth, even the Church of he Latter Day Saints.” Thereafter, it appears the elder Smith was regarded as much more than a mere patriarch over one family, but instead, the patriarch over Mormonism’s first family, the one with the most authority, which included the church’s first elder, his son, Joseph Smith, Jr. He was thus a patriarch presiding over the whole church, preeminent over any other family patriarch, and he held this status until his death. Shortly before he died, he conferred his title on his eldest living son, Hyrum. Naturally, in December of 1834 the Smith family’s patriarch’s first act in his new formal calling was to give blessings to his own offspring, and this he did on December 9 with his children gathered in his son Joseph’s home. The blessings to Hyrum and Joseph contained the elder Smith’s expressions of gratitude, praise, and comfort to his sons Hyrum and Joseph, as well as assurances that their righteousness would be rewarded the same as the ancient prophets had been. Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 262-3.
Predictably, other church members sought to receive the same kind of blessings from the church’s patriarch that had had so far been restricted to the Smith family. John Young, Sr. could not provide these, as his jurisdiction covered only his own family. Indeed, it was originally contemplated that such blessings would be delivered by each family’s own patriarch. So, during Joseph Smith, Sr.’s life, he only provided blessings to those who didn’t have a father of their own who could provide it, due to not being alive, or not being a member of the church. Only on rare occasions did he vary from this policy, and this was done only when worthy fathers had granted him permission to do so. Being unique in his authority over the whole church, he thus began traveling far and wide giving blessings to non-family members within these parameters. Writing of these early years, Michael Quinn writes: “Within a few years of December 1834, patriarchal blessings adopted their present character. At first primarily “comfort blessing,” patriarchal blessings developed qualities of seership and prophecy, speaking of potentials, predicting future activities, and designating lineage in one of the twelve tribes of Israel.” Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy, 51.
In 1837 Isaac Morley was ordained as a patriarch to provide blessings for the Missouri saints, whom Joseph Smith, Sr. had never yet visited. Later, only when Brigham Young assumed control over the church was authorization given for patriarchs to give blessings to anyone, regardless of the availability of a worthy male parent. Thus begun the practice of patriarchal blessings that exists today, but initially, the practice had only been contemplated as something a father would perform for his own children whose needs and personalities he knew intimately.
Joseph Smith, perhaps aware of the fact that no ancient office of patriarch had existed in the ancient Church of Christ in either the eastern or western hemisphere, equated the calling of Patriarch with that of an “evangelical minister” in verse 39 of an 1835 revelation that became Doctrine and Covenants section 107. Evangelists had been mentioned in Acts 21:8, Ephesians 4:11 and 2 Timothy 4:5. Smith then explained in 1839 that “[a]n Evangelist is a Patriarch, even the oldest man of the blood of Joseph or of the seed of Abraham . . .as it was with Jacob in giving his patriarchal blessing unto his sons, etc.” See Doctrine and Covenants 107:39 and History of the Church 3:381. Joseph’s definition of the term“evangelist” is novel, unsupported by any other Christian scholar or traditional interpretation, whether ancient or modern. The universally accepted meaning of the term, as it is used in the New Testament, is “a person authorized to proclaim the gospel of Christ. In a more narrow sense, the word refers to one of the gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Literally, however, the term means, ‘one who proclaims good tidings.’” Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Ronald F. Youngblood, Ed., (Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), 422. Joseph’s reappropriation of the term “evangelist” to mean patriarch, something it has never meant before, lacks credibility. It is as if he were to say that the term “apostle” means Elders’ Quorum President. The evidence supports an alternative conclusion: Joseph Smith wanted to create an important church calling for his father. In so doing, he used a term that meant “male head of a family”, transformed it into a title suggestive of an elevated position of church authority and responsibility, then claimed the position had ancient origins in Christ’s church but was known by another name. Joseph Smith appears to have believed that linking a patriarch to an evangelist would deflect criticism that he was straying from the organizational structure Jesus’s church had anticipated.
Given my personal experience seeing numerous patriarchal blessings prove themselves to be uninspired, unprophetic, misleading, often based on doctrinal or historical misconceptions, frequently restating promises which are already found throughout the scriptures, and easily fabricated, and having failed to see evidence that God ordained Mormonism’s current practice either anciently or in our time, my conclusion is, therefore, that we shouldn’t defend this practice or preserve it. The practice should be therefore discontinued, if for no other reason than to spare the Church the necessity of always having to explain why so many blessings contain logically impossible lineages, or don’t come true in any meaningful respect, or prophesy of future developments which will never be verifiable, or state nothing more than what is already obvious, or simply, appear to serve no clearly useful purpose.
To be clear, I lack the evidence to conclude that no patriarchal blessing ever given has been prophetic, or that it’s improbable that an ordained patriarch could actually foretell future events or provide much-needed admonitions to the recipient. But I do conclude that whatever blessings individual church members have received which they attribute to the words spoken by a stake patriarch in a patriarchal blessing could just as easily be obtained by interacting and speaking with other inspired Christians in an infinite number of settings, if said fellow Christians take seriously the Lord’s encouragement to be each others’ caring neighbors. And if someday it should turn out that I am wrong about this, I will truthfully be able to say to God that I used the intellectual and spiritual tools he equipped me with to reach my conclusions.