A note on the history of back-to-school blessings

By August 20, 2019

I am a practicing Latter-day Saint. I grew up practicing. One of the things that I remember from my childhood in the 1980s is when my father layed his hands on the heads of my siblings and I and blessed us at the beginning of the school year. I recently blessed my oldest child before he left for the first year of college and will bless his younger siblings in a couple of weeks. Today a friend asked me when this practice started.

My first instinct was that it must be surely associated with the rise of the priesthood officer/father of the post-WW II church. It was at this time, for example, that fathers blessing their babies in church instead of the bishop became not only common, but a definitive duty. But there are also significant antecedents. As early as the 1860s, the men and women who travelled East for school often received a blessing from church leaders (frequently apostles and First Presidency members) before leaving. [n1] My sense is that it wasn’t just priesthood leaders that were giving these blessings, though. For example, among the hundreds of blessings she delivered during the late 1880s, Zina Young blessed a woman “for her journey south.” [n2] I haven’t done the work to determine why this women was headed south…though it quite certainly wasn’t for university training. But the idea that men and women in the church at the time would bless each other before a journey or life change is entirely normative.

It is quite possible that the back-to-school father’s blessing is one of the most common rituals performed in the church outside of the temple and church meetings. And there is a lot of research and work to be done in documenting and analyzing the rise of this common ritual. For example, as this is not part of the formal liturgy of the church (there is not section on the handbook for it), people generally learn of it by proximate example (experience), and oral instruction. Do fathers in places where the majority of members are converts bless their children before school? How common is it in the US?

A quick look in my files does suggest that my first instincts were at least in the ballpark. In the April 1970 General Conference of the church, Marion Hanks spoke on home and family life:

Let me be personal enough to mention that the choicest memories of recent years, as we talk of ritual or celebration at our home, are the times we prepared as a family to bid a precious child farewell on her way to school. We celebrated the sad/happy event and joined our hearts together as the head of the home gave her a father’s blessing and invoked the Spirit of the Lord upon her. Twice we have had that glorious privilege, and pray God that we may enjoy it with each child. It is of such simple but significant things that family traditions are built and unified families with them. [n3]

This is a wonderful illustration of the practice. It appears that Hanks blessed his children as they left home to pursue education. This ties the ritual back to those Territorial blessings of yore. But it also is self consciously tradition-making and leads to contemporary practice. It is entirely imaginable to me that other children present at the blessing might on occasion yearn to be blessed, and parents equally desirous to have them be blessed. And so a decade later it was when my father blessed me, and then decades more when I blessed my son.

_______________

  1. There are several instances of early and later blessings in Simpson, “The Death of Mormon Separatism in American Universities, 1877–1896” Religion and American Culture.
  2. Zina Card Family Papers, CHL, MS 4780, box 1, fd 15.
  3. Conference Report, April 1970, 99.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Great post. I look forward to the contributions of others to the conversation. My two cents:
    1) One memorable school blessing story “on the record” was in the Oct. 2003 General conference, when Merrill Bateman told about one of his sons declining a blessing, then getting hit by a car. Bateman was born in the mid 1930s, which matches the author’s proposed timeline
    https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2003/10/priesthood-keys-and-the-power-to-bless?lang=eng.

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 20, 2019 @ 4:30 pm

  2. Thanks for that pointer, Clark. If I’ve done my math and sleuthing correctly, that would put that story in the late 1960s or early 70s. Sounds like it was well established in their family by this time.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 20, 2019 @ 5:10 pm

  3. A bit of an addendum, now that I have had a chance to research some more. The 1976 General Handbook included a quote from a First Presidency Statement encouraging the practice of Father’s Blessings (that bled over into patriarchal blessings, interestingly enough). In it, the FP wrote “We should urge and encourage fathers to give a father’s blessing to their children on such occasions as their going into the military or away from home to school or on missions and on other appropriate occasions.” That encouragement of giving blessings when children leave for school was reiterated in all subsequent handbooks.

    The emphasis was reiterated by President Kimball in the October 1977 GenCon: “Of course, it is the right of every father and his duty as patriarch of his own family to give a father’s blessing to his children, and it is our hope that every father will give a sacred blessing to each of his children, especially as they are leaving home to go to school or on missions or to be married, which blessing should then be noted in the individual’s private journal.”

    Extra bonus Elder Oaks, in April 1987 GenCon: “Priesthood blessings are often requested from fathers before children leave home for other purposes, such as school, service in the military, or a long trip.”

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 20, 2019 @ 9:25 pm

  4. Here is a comment on the practice from Joseph Fielding McConkie in his book “The Bruce R. McConkie Story”

    “In some homes, the father gives each of his children a blessing as they start each new school year. That was not done in our home. The blessings I received were on such occasions as missionary and military service or marriage. Rich in the outpouring of the Spirit, these blessings were recorded, and they are in counsel and prophecy the equal of the blessing given me by an inspired patriarch.” pg 238

    Comment by SSH — August 21, 2019 @ 12:14 pm

  5. Good article. It makes me wonder about home blessings. Dos this still happen? What about blessing a vehicle before a trip? Did you come across any information about these types of blessings?

    Comment by Ann — August 21, 2019 @ 12:35 pm

  6. Great post, Jonathan. I wonder how common similar rituals are in other traditions. For instance, I can imagine that many evangelical parents — and even many mainline Protestant parents, for that matter — have a special time of prayer with their children when they start the school year or leave for college. They wouldn’t understand it as a priestly blessing, of course, but the function would be similar.

    Comment by John Turner — August 22, 2019 @ 9:10 am

  7. Thanks John. I hadn’t thought of that and some googling around suggests that it is a thing. Methodist back to school blessing liturgy! There are back to school prayer services, and more. Thanks for the pointer.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 22, 2019 @ 2:44 pm

  8. My footnote to patriarchal blessings:
    Such blessings of parents to children were also a medieval and early modern folk practice. Keith Thomas refers to the practice, “based on patriarchal authority,” in which children received “blessings from their parents. This was no sentimental triviality, but a solemn act which Puritans regarded as an obnoxious Popish survival.” Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (1971, reprint; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 505.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 22, 2019 @ 8:03 pm

  9. Have you seen anything like on this side of the Atlantic, Steve?

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 24, 2019 @ 8:38 am

  10. No but haven’t really looked.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 24, 2019 @ 4:05 pm


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