Early Patriarchal Blessings and Connecting to Antiquity

By May 11, 2009

Patriarchal blessings have always been an important aspect of Mormonism, and serve as a great window through which to interpret early Mormon thought. One key to understanding Joseph Smith Sr.’s role as the first patriarch is to recognize that the bestowal of “patriarchal blessings” was a crucial step for Latter-day Saints to connect themselves with the authority of the past. Jan Shipps noted that early Mormonism was a “movement in which leader and followers were together living through—recapitulating—the stories of Israel and early Christianity”[1]—the implementation of patriarchal blessings was an important way to do this.

When Joseph Smith Jr. ordained his father to be the Church Patriarch, he included wording that is crucial in understanding what this office was supposed to be. After explaining how Father Adam called all of his posterity together “three years previous to [his] death” and “bestowed upon them his last blessing,” Joseph made this ancient history more applicable to the present: “So shall it be with my father.” Joseph placed his father in the same category—indeed, the same situation—as the righteous biblical figures of old. “He shall sit in the general assembly of patriarchs, even in council with the Ancient of Days when he shall sit and all the patriarchs with him—and shall enjoy his right and authority under the direction of the Ancient of Days.”[2] This ordination literally raised the former farmer’s spiritual stature to that of Biblical patriarch.

Joseph Smith Sr. then, in turn, did the same for those who came to him for blessings. Most often called a “father’s blessing”[3] or a “parental blessing,”[4] the purpose of these rituals seemed to be to literally place the early Saints into a royal lineage. Earthy fathers were forgotten in this new spiritual lineage (“an inasmuch as you have no earthly father you shall receive a father’s blessing under my hand…”[5]) while a new lineage is given: “You are blessed with the blessing of Abraham, and you are now numbered with his seed”[6]; they were told that they were in “the lineage of Joseph and a joint heir of Abraham’s blessings.”[7] These recipients were then promised that they would have power to do the same to their family. To Erastus Babbit, Joseph Smith Sr. said, “[thou] shalt have power to govern thy family and teach them the ways of righteousness; and also thou shalt have power to bestow upon them a father’s blessing when thou canst do no more for them.”[8] These blessings served as a way to link their families to the past–bypassing the preceding two centuries lost to apostasy–and established a new starting point safely housed within the House of Israel.

The blessing of Vinson Knight offers a good example by encapsulating these elements:

Brother Knight, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ I lay my hands upon thee, and seal upon thy head a father’s blessing, which shall be for thee and for thy children, and thy children’s children, even to the last generations; and if thou art faithful thou shalt have power to confirm it upon thy children, and they children shall confirm it upon their children; and thus, by the authority of the holy priesthood, shall the blessings remain to all thy generations…for thou art the seed of Israel, and an heir to the blessings which were pronounce[d] upon the head of Abraham under the hands of Melchesedek.[9]

In this blessing, rather than just being an average farmer from Massachusetts coming from common parents, Vinson Knight was now in the same class as Abraham, holding all the promises given to the prophets of old, and had the potential of raising his entire family through many generations to this power. These blessings promised that the recipient was now literally in the family of ancient prophets like Abraham and Moses, and that God was their literal father. Having been placed in this sacred family, it now opened up to them limitless possibilities that beforehand they only thought possible for those recorded in the Bible. They were now in the family tree of Prophets and were granted the same privileges and expectations as those they loved and revered.

______________________________

[1] Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 38.

[2] Marquardt, Early Patriarchal Blessings, 4. All of the following blessings will reference the page number they are found at in this compilation.

[3] See, for example, blessings given to Joseph C. Kingsbury (pg. 21), Eliza C. Brown (22), Ann R. Brown (23), Samuel Rolfe (23), and Elizabeth Rolfe (23-24), for just a few early examples.

[4] See blessing of John Murdock (21).

[5] Blessing of Ann R. Brown (23). Also see blessings of Eliza C. Brown (22), Lyman Sherman (24), Almira Sherman (24-25), Mary Johnson (25), and Orson Pratt (26-27), for just a few other examples.

[6] Blessing of Samuel Rolfe (23).

[7] Blessing of Morris Phelps (38).

[8] Blessing of Erastus Babbit (27).

[9] Blessing of Vinson Knight (34).

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History Theology


Comments

  1. Did any of the early Saints question whether these blessings were turning them into Abraham’s descendants or simply revealing their literal descent from him?

    Comment by Sterling Fluharty — May 11, 2009 @ 8:31 pm

  2. I haven’t come upon any personal reflections talking about that–only JS’s teaching regarding the topic that I’m sure you’re referring to.

    There are a number of blessings, though, that specifically describe the recipient of a gentile and that they were now “adopted” into the house of israel.

    Comment by Ben — May 11, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

  3. Perhaps someone more knowledgable in the writings of Bro. McConkie can clear this up with me, but I’ve heard him quoted in church as saying that there are no gentiles in the church, only literal Israelites. Your comment in #2 Ben would seem to go against that interpretation.

    Comment by David G. — May 11, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

  4. D’oh, my library fails me…no copy of Mormon Doctrine.

    David, I’ve heard both ideas, JS’s quote that the Spirit purges the Gentile blood and makes the recipient a literal Israelite (which I guess could lead to either the only literal Israelite idea or the adoption idea). Some BYU professors I had went as far as to say that only literal Israelites would join the Church. He went on to say, however, that because of migration patterns, etc, the whole world had the blood of Israel by now, so world wide missionary efforts were necessary. In various Church/seminary settings I’ve heard the adoption language. So, I think that a lot of people are either not aware of the seeming contradiction or they feel maybe that the two ideas fit.

    Comment by Jared T — May 11, 2009 @ 10:31 pm

  5. Family tradition has it that the maid would complain of the heavy bags of gold when it came time to dust the shelves of the nice frame home of Vinson and Martha McBride Knight’s farm in western NY State. On the March 1834 evening when Joseph Smith and Parley P. Pratt came to preach and stay the night, Vinson’s disapproving, widowed mother sought refuge in the vacant bed of a sympathizing non-Mormon neighbor’s son – until the lad came home unexpectedly in the middle of the night and tried to slip into bed without lighting a candle!

    Ben’s interesting post has moved me to create a separate .pdf of entry 73 of Mormon Parallels, just now posted, for anyone who might find it partially relevant here . . .

    http://www.rickgrunder.com/parallels/mp73.pdf

    Comment by Rick Grunder — May 11, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

  6. David: What Jared said. Also, I think that the Book of Mormon makes it appear that Joseph Smith et. all were all gentiles being adopted into the House of Israel.

    Rick: Thanks, as always, for sharing those fascinating contemporary documents.

    Comment by Ben — May 11, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

  7. Thanks, Jared and Ben. I too read the BoM as saying that “the Gentiles” would bring the BoM to the Lamanites (but also that JS was a literal descendant of Joseph [and BY thought JS was a literal descendant of Jesus]). Which is why I’ve always found McConkie’s (alleged) statement to be a bit confusing.

    Comment by David G. — May 12, 2009 @ 8:33 am

  8. Interesting ideas, Ben. Your discussion of Joseph Smith, Sr. and Joseph’s elevation of him to Patriarch of the Church reminded me of Bushman’s idea that this act was especially meaningful as a validation of Joseph Sr. after his difficulty in providing for the Smith family an in spite of his ‘shortcomings’ as a father. Seen in this context, being elevated and put on par with Abraham must have been especially dramatic.

    Comment by Ryan T. — May 14, 2009 @ 6:34 pm


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