“Following the death of Joseph Smith the policy of the church was to exclude blacks from ordination to the priesthood and from Latter-day Saint temples. Although some black members of the church were given patriarchal blessings, declarations of lineage were omitted as a matter of policy. But guidelines were not consistent, and the question remained the subject of debate. In 1934 Patriarch James H. Wallis wrote in his journal, “I have always known that one of negro blood cannot receive the Priesthood nor the blessings of the Temple, and are also disqualified from receiving a patriarchal blessing . . . But I am sure there is no objection to giving them a blessing of encouragement and comfort, leaving out all reference to lineage and sealing.” Apostle John A. Widtsoe relayed President Heber J. Grant’s reply to Wallis’s request for a ruling. It stated, “It will be alright for Brother Wallis to bless them, but as to their status in the future, that their status in the future, that is . . . in the hands of the Lord.”[i]
In a previous post, I explored the ways in which racism has been espoused by LDS leaders and average Latter-day Saints alike, and how the vestiges of some of those teachings remain in modern Latter-day Saint doctrine. In today’s post, I’d like to explore the ways in which patriarchal blessings continue to identify Latter-day Saints by racial heritage, and, in some instances, place people of African descent as separate and inferior to “white” Mormons, through the LDS Church’s counsel not to declare an Israelite lineage to African-descended Mormons.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a “patriarchal blessing” is a blessing bestowed by an ordained patriarch (in the vein of Old Testament patriarchs like Abraham), which dispenses direction and advice to the receiver. The blessing also declares the blood lineage of the receiver in relation to his or her connection to the House of Israel.[ii] Smith’s own theology was generally universalist, meaning that he did not preclude any person from obtaining salvation, regardless of racial background. In the New Testament, John the Baptist preached to the Pharisees and Sadducees that their Abrahamic lineage did not elevate their relationship or access to God. Indeed, John the Baptist informed the Jews, “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”[iii] Joseph Smith similarly believed that Abrahamic lineage did not matter in relation to salvation or divine favor. God could raise up anyone, including Africans, as “children of Abraham,” so far as they converted to Mormonism and accepted its principles and ordinances.
Joseph Smith and his successor’s teachings made a connection between the willingness to accept the Mormon gospel and a religio-racial heritage within the Abrahamic covenant. Being declared a member of the House of Israel placed one within what historian Samuel Brown has called a “sacerdotal family,” a kinship network wherein the human family was connected together through relationships rooted in blessings promised in Mormon temple liturgy. [iv] In other words, Joseph Smith and his successors preached the importance of creating a religious body that had family or kinship networks cemented through ordinances like the sealing ritual. Patriarchal blessings, which, as mentioned before, declared one’s racial lineage, represented “one of the first indications” that Joseph Smith’s religious vision would extend Abraham’s promised blessings to all that wished to receive them. Even those considered to be outside the Abrahamic covenant and bloodline of Israel, including peoples of African descent.[v]
None of the patriarchal blessings given to Mormons of African descent before 1850 declare Israelite lineage for their recipients. In accordance with the racist view of the time, Africans were viewed as “hereditary heathens,” that were born with biological deficiencies.[vi] This view, combined with teachings on the Curse of Cain by Brigham Young, Orson Hyde, John Taylor, Parley Pratt, and others, forbade peoples of African descent from participating in temple liturgy or African-descended men from holding ecclesiastical office. Those racist views were also seen in not declaring peoples of African descent as members of the “chosen” House of Israel and Abrahamic covenant. As the quote at the beginning of the post shows, Mormons of African descent were not declared part of the lineage of Israel by direction of the President of the LDS Church.
Mormons of African descent have stated that there was a change after 1978, the year of Official Declaration Two. Today marks the thirty-ninth anniversary of the release of that Declaration, the statement most recently canonized by the LDS Church. The Declaration made it possible for all people of African descent, male and female, to participate in LDS temple liturgy, including the endowment and the sealing ordinance. The statement, now as accepted as revelation in the LDS Church, also made it possible for men of African descent to hold ecclesiastical priesthood office. I am grateful that it has been included in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants.
However, discrimination against peoples of African descent has not disappeared from modern Mormonism just because of the release and canonization of Official Declaration 2. Zandra of Sistas in Zion has stated that her patriarchal blessing does not declare an Israelite lineage. I do not claim that this is a widespread practice, but I think it is important to find out if African-descended folks are having their lineage declared in modern Mormonism, or if the practice has slowly disappeared. A link to an anonymous survey can be found at the bottom of this post.
I was 1st Blk he'd ever blessed & not like LDS church retrained Patriarchs post'78 so he did what he was told pre'78 Still no lineage yet -Z https://t.co/9WuAD5gH7s
— Sistas in Zion (@SISTASinZION) June 7, 2017
It was church policy. My Blk LDS fam incl Darius Gray, Joseph Freeman, Sis Jeri Harwell & many others all went & got lineage after 1978. -Z https://t.co/Xju934VIz1
— Sistas in Zion (@SISTASinZION) June 7, 2017
Racial practices like declining to declare Israelite lineage have continued through the actions of individual patriarchs (no one I have spoken to has confirmed that there is any direction given to patriarchs on declaring lineage for African-descended peoples). I have heard of several patriarchal blessings given to Mormons of African descent that do not declare lineage at all, which places them outside of the Israelite “norm” in modern Mormonism. I also have testimony from a stake president in the Midwest that had to ask a patriarch to include lineage in blessings, because he was not doing it for any individual, regardless of race.
If you identify as a Latter-day Saint of African descent, would you mind filling out this anonymous survey about lineage in LDS patriarchal blessings? This can help Latter-day Saints and scholars better understand the ways that race and lineage have historically been tethered to one another in Mormon thought.
[i] Irene Bates “Patriarchal Blessings and the Routinization of Charisma” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol.26, No.3 (Fall 1993): 7-8. Quote is from Quoted in Gloria W. Rytting, James H. Wallis, Poet, Printer and Patriarch (Salt Lake City: R. & R. Enterprises, 1989), 186. Thanks to Jonathan Stapley for finding the reference.
[ii] William James Mortimer, “Patriarchal Blessings,” The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, accessed June 7, 2017, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Patriarchal_Blessings.
[iii] Matthew 3:9, King James Version.
[iv] See Samuel M. Brown, “Early Mormon Adoption Theology and the Mechanics of Salvation,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no 3 (Summer 2011): 6, 22.
[v] I just completed a revise and resubmit to Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture that explores these topics more in-depth. Stay tuned for a future issue!
[vi] Rebecca Goetz uses the phrase “hereditary heathens” to describe seventeenth-century Protestant views of religio-racial curses, but the ideas remained popular in American history. See Rebecca Anne Goetz, Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 1-12, 112-137.