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.
- 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.
- Zina Card Family Papers, CHL, MS 4780, box 1, fd 15.
- Conference Report, April 1970, 99.