Receiving my patriarchal blessing was the spiritual highlight of my youth. The whole event carried an intense and happy feeling that God knew me personally and that the church — being the repository of such wonders — was true. The effect my patriarchal blessing experience had on my subsequent life cannot be overestimated.
Mormon patriarchal blessings are strange creatures. They exist theologically to declare one’s Israelite lineage. Our modern understanding of genetic lineage is forced to now emphasise the symbolic nature of the declaration, powerful in its own right (we are to do the works of Abraham, “pure Ephraimite” or not), but still a relic of the day when Mormons imagined direct descent from biblical patriarchs.
The prophetic element of the blessing is a marvel indeed, especially when we consider that such bold and specific seership is not common on a general level in the church anymore. For me, my blessing was a collection of wise admonitions and promises, coupled with an uncanny appraisal of my character. That our Stake Patriarch did not know me added in a unmeasurable way to the sense that it was God who was speaking to me. Again, this was powerful stuff.
But Patriarchs are not infallible oracles, and their blessings ought not to be considered the unadulterated word of God. The church (sort of) recognises this when we hear counsel not to imagine the blessing as fortune telling, to remember that blessings are conditional on obedience, and that some prophecies may not come to fruition in this life. Despite this, I think that on a practical level such counsel is sometimes forgotten and that there’s a strong feeling in the church that the patriarchal blessing is infallible scripture, where questions of being “translated correctly” are not properly applied.
Just like scripture, I believe that patriarchal blessings contain the word of God, but that does not mean that they are, in themselves, the word of God. The recipient must seek God’s counsel to understand the nature of the blessing, what represents God’s word and what is the imperfect language of the fallible man giving the blessing. To think otherwise would be to claim a level of oracular perfection in a Patriarch that I do not think can be sustained.
My own blessing is pretty uncontroversial but still requires me to gain a sense of its relevance and application in any given circumstance. Sometimes, however, patriarchal blessings can have major consequences to life and faith. Here are some examples that I am personally aware of (i.e. they have happened to people I know):
- An engaged woman is told that she will serve a mission “in her youth.” Should she break-off the engagement?
- An engaged man is told that he has not yet met his future wife. Should he break-off the engagement?
- A woman is told that she will see the Second Coming of Jesus. If she dies beforehand, should the blessing be considered fatally flawed?
- A woman is told she will have children but currently finds herself infertile. Is her faithfulness in question?
- One patriarch often told girls exactly how many children they would have. At what point does this become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Should the woman who was told she would have five children really stop at three (she doesn’t think she can cope with any more)?
In a church where prophecy “means everything,” faithful Mormons will naturally and justifiably grapple with questions like these. My only advice is that decisions not be made simply because “my patriarchal blessing says so” and that we not agonise over every jot and tittle. That would be an abrogation of agency and a foolish step down the road of infallibility. All prophetic blessings are, in their final tally, the utterances of men, the level of inspiration in which must be personally and prayerfully ascertained by the recipient. A patriarchal blessing is scripture “as far as it is translated correctly.”