“Thou Wast Willing to Lay Down Thy Life for Thy Brethren”: Zion’s Blessings in the Early Church, Part II

By October 2, 2008

*This is continued from Part I.

Because these Zion?s blessings have been confused for Patriarchal blessings over the years, we have been robbed of the significant insights they provide of early Mormon thought. Several of these blessings were recorded in the Patriarchal Blessing Book?one of them, Charles C. Rich?s, was even labeled as a Zion?s Blessing[1]?but many more were just recorded in the recipient?s journal or in a personal papers? collection. For instance, Lorenzo Barnes?s diary includes his Patriarchal Blessing received on May 3rd, 1835, and later includes a separate ?Zion?s Blessing? received on January 3rd, 1836.[2] Alvin Winegar, in his later reminiscence, specifically separates his Patriarchal Blessing received under the hands of Joseph Smith Sr. from his Zion?s Blessing received under the hands of the First Presidency.[3] Many of these members of Zion?s Camp who were not called to leadership have two blessings recorded in either the Patriarchal Blessing book or their personal papers?one their Patriarchal, and the other their Zion?s, though they are mostly not categorized as such.

While at first glance these blessings may appear similar to others types of blessings (specifically patriarchal), they can be distinguished by specific wording. Most contain phrases like ?Thou art of son of Zion,? ?Thou art willing to lay down thy life for thy brethren,? ?Thou hast been up to the land of Zion,? or the blessing may just specifically mention that the individual was a part of Zion?s Camp. A descent example of a blessing of this type is the one given to David Elliott in 1836. This blessing emphasizes the trials he had to go through as part of the camp, as well as the blessings and responsibilities he will receive as a result:

Thou art blessed of God, because thou didst take thy life in thy hands and go up to assist thy brethren, and had to contend against many foes in getting away. God hath accepted thy offering. Thou didst see thy brethren fall on the right hand and on the left, because of the displeasure of God whom thy had offended, and the transgressions of the camp. But thy life was sealed so that thou didst not love it[.] Thou hast witnessed the love for thy brethren in being willing to suffer for them. The Lord shall bless thee and thou shalt have means to go and proclaim the gospel.[4]

When looked for, other evidence for these blessings can be found. Joseph Smith?s Kirtland journal includes two obvious references: an entry for November 29, 1835 recorded that ?after [the day?s] services closed, three of the Zion brethren came forward and received their blessing.?[5] On February 7, 1836, Joseph merely wrote that he ?blessed one of the Zion brethren.?[6] The general History of the Church recorded that at a general assembly on August 17th, 1835, among several ordinations to priesthood offices, five men?all members of Zion?s Camp?were called forward to receive a blessing. Two of these individuals? blessings were recorded in the Patriarchal Blessing Book, and both of them contained language that matches the criteria of a ?Zion?s Blessing.? Even more provocative, on a list of Zion?s Camp members, these five men follow each other in alphabetical order?implying a possible systematic order in bestowing these blessings on the Zion brethren.[7]

Several common themes are found throughout all of these blessings. One of the most important is an emphasis on the participant?s willingness to sacrifice everything they had, including their own life, for the kingdom. This seemed to be an important idea during this time period in Kirtland while the Saints were trying to sanctify themselves for the upcoming temple experience. The ?Lectures on Faith,? delivered that winter in the organized School of the Prophets, spoke on the very theme of complete sacrifice: “Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things.” The lecture would go on to say that it is only ?through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things, that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God.?[8] Thus, in early Mormon thought, before the Nauvoo implementation of temple sealing ordinances, the acknowledgement of a willingness to sacrifice all things was one way they dealt with the theological problem of assurance. The Zion?s Blessings helped this ideal: it specifically stated that the individual was willing to sacrifice all things, and in return they were promised eternal blessings upon them and their posterity. The blessing to Elijah Fordham provides a good example of this:

Thou art a son of Zion and art entitled to the high priest-hood?Thy name is written in heaven among the sanctified ones?Thou hast offered thy life for Zion and the Lord has given thee thy life.[9]

Also included in the Zion?s Blessings was often a call to the ministry?again showing the close connection to those who were called to official ministerial positions. Lorenzo Barnes was told that because ?thou hast been faithful and hast not withheld thy life from laying it down for thy brethren,? he was ?a chosen vessel unto the Lord? and was called to preach ?the Fullness of the gospel unto people & nations a far off.?[10] Lewis Robbins was also given similar counsel: ?Thou art of the camp of Zion, yea one of those who did go up to redeem the land and did lay down thy life for thy brethren and the Lord did receive thy sacrifice & has given thy life unto thee to do a work for him, even that which he hath called thee unto.?[11]

Perhaps the most important lesson that can be learned from these blessings, however, is the example it gives of the ?collapse of the sacred? as portrayed in early Mormon thought. They took an abstract principle?desiring the blessings from offering their lives in order to save their brethren?and made it a concrete ritual. While verbally pronounced blessings were powerful in and of themselves, to have those blessings sealed on the recipient by the hands of a patriarch reminiscent of the Old Testament solidified the principles in their biblically oriented minds. Seen in this way, early Mormon blessings, including patriarchal, temple, and Zion?s blessings, served as a more concrete linkage between the modern saints and their counterparts in antiquity. While they were in principle striving to become a ?Zion people,? these blessings confirmed that they were a ?Zion person.? This was one of the central focuses for early blessings in general: to make tangible ideals that were otherwise superficial.


[1] Zion Blessing of Charles Coulson Rich, in Marquardt, Early Patriarchal Blessings, 68.

[2] Lorenzo Dow Barnes Diary, LDS Church Archives, pg. 43-50.

[3] Transcripts of both blessings are found in the Alvin Winegar Papers, LDS Church Archives.

[4] Blessing to David Elliot, transcribed in Marquardt, Early Patriarchal Blessings, 70.

[5] Papers of Joseph Smith 2:92.

[6] Papers of Joseph Smith 2:171.

[7] History of the Church 2:244.

[8] “Lecture Sixth. On Faith,? Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter-day Saints: From the Revelations of God (Kirtland, Ohio: F. G. Williams and Co., 1835), 60.

[9] Blessing on Elijah Fordham, transcribed in Marquardt, Early Patriarchal Blessings, 119. Also, John Murdock recorded that in 1836, in what may have been his Zion?s blessing, he ?was blessed and sealed up by the Presidency,? as a result of his faithful service. John Murdock, Autobiography, LDS Church Archives, 39.

[10] Lorenzo Dow Barnes Diary, 47.

[11] Blessing on Lewis Robbins, transcribed in Marquardt, Early Patriarchal Blessings, 139.

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


  1. Awesome stuff, again. Thanks for sharing this.

    I will however quibble with some of your analysis. You state:

    “Thus, in early Mormon thought, before the Nauvoo implementation of temple sealing ordinances, the acknowledgement of a willingness to sacrifice all things was how they dealt with the theological problem of assurance.”

    This is too far reaching. You could safely say that it was “a way” in which they dealt with assurance; however there were lots of other “ways” that had been floating around since at least 1831. Specifically the ideas of being sealed up into eternal life or having one’s name be written in the book of life.

    You go on to say:

    “They took an abstract principle?desiring the blessings from offering their lives in order to save their brethren?and made it a concrete ordinance.”

    I think it would be better to say that they ritualized their fruits of their sacrifice. Ordinance is a complicated term that isn’t, I think, applicable here. Moreover, as there were all sorts of rituals that were performed during this period, these blessings can be seen as part of that wider project of ritualization. I don’t see how it is particularly distinct from any other sort of blessing of the time.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 2, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

  2. J: Great comments. This is why I wanted to post this: I can get critiques from people much smarter than I. In fact, I am going to alter a couple words in the text (once I get out of class so I can use a PC–my mac does screwy things to posts) to make it reflect your critiques.

    Comment by Ben — October 2, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

  3. #1: I think you may be missing soon of the powerful feelings this ritual had for the receivers. It was more than a blessing about ones future, but a statement: “Today, we call you a brave and noble man”. Much as a soldier getting his Metal. Much like “The Red Badge Of Courage”.

    Comment by Bob — October 2, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

  4. Fascinating topic. You’d want to walk through authors and dates since the images of sealing, book of life, and the rest are also present in PBs at the same time. Are these distinct blessings, or are they special applications of PBs to ZC participants? YOu’ll want to make this clearer if you’re planning to publish.
    To publish this you would need to engage the destroying angel of cholera, which was an overwhelming narrative of Zion’s Camp. These ZBs may have been required to liberate these men from the opprobrium of the cholera. I have material on this in my chapter 1 if you want to see it.
    Stapes is right that sealing is earlier and more complex than you’ve suggested. I have some material on the context for sealing that will be relevant to you.

    Also, I have a section on PBs in my chap 5 and would like to cite your paper. Can you send me a copy?

    Comment by smb — October 2, 2008 @ 6:37 pm


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