Michael Marquardt, comp. and ed. Early Patriarchal Blessings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2007. 447pp, index and introduction, cloth, large format. (I bought my freshly published copy from Curt Bench and Co on Saturday, and though it was more expensive than Amazon, I was glad to support a stalwart independent bookseller.)
Marquardt should be quite proud of this accomplishment, the assembly of all known blessings from Joseph Smith Sr, Joseph Smith Jr, Hyrum Smith, and William Smith (through 1845), the first four patriarchs of the Latter Day Saints (he also includes the stray blessing from the fifth patriarch, Joseph Sr’s brother John and even one by Oliver Cowdery bestowed on Joseph Jr). Rather than hunting and pecking through various informal collections or citations in Irene Bates’s well-regarded treatments, students of early Mormonism can now find in easy reach an impressive corpus of these important blessings.
These blessings provide a window into earliest Mormonism, particularly as it was influenced by Father Smith, the “first” patriarch of the church (his namesake son actually was the first, but he quickly transferred the role to his father). In these blessings, several themes emerge quickly and consistently. For a rite based on the deathbed blessings of the ancient patriarchs, particularly Father Israel, these prayers of promise do not disappoint. Particularly those from Joseph Sr emphasize the quest for immortality and the conquest of death to an astounding degree. Recipients learned that they could expect Elijah’s chariot to return for them, would recapitulate Enoch’s ascension, would receive the power to “translate” themselves through the heavens into heaven, and would be able to choose when to die at the end of a full life. Some heard direct predictions of their lifespan, from 75 to 120 years, while the great majority expected to be present at the earth’s “winding up scene.” Most importantly, (and to an extent poorly commented in the current literature) there is every indication that Father Smith considered these early blessings to be the actual entries in the heavenly Book of Life that would seal the recipient to salvation in the “celestial world.”
Other themes also appear. The presence of the impending Millennium is everywhere felt, kinship with the namesake patriarch Joseph of Egypt is strong. Blessings for health, and scriptural style freedom from imprisonment and suffering are core components, as is a strong proselytizing focus. We also see in these blessings much of Joseph Sr’s soul. In fact, this is probably the largest corpus of Father Smith’s writing and preaching. He loved his children desperately but was embarrassed by the family’s poverty and his own failings, but he knew that the solution to these embarrassments was the church his son had founded. Through that church, he became father to multitudes, and the priesthood patriarch to his own family. Through that church he discovered the good news of God’s priesthood, His plan of salvation, and the imminent return of the Messiah. There are many other insights and historical adventures in these personalized prophecies, which many recipients received at special community feasts (probably modeled on the Methodist love feast) and carried with themselves to share with others.
I would end with two metatextual comments.
First, as opposed to his earlier Joseph Smith Revelations, an excellent documentary work marred by petty polemics, the Patriarchal Blessings volume is precisely what both apologists and critics should aspire to in making primary sources available to others: the actual documents with minimal neutral apparatus. Much as Dan Vogel separated documents from interpretive vision in his Early Mormon Documents (summarized and critically interpreted in Making of a Prophet), Marquardt has presented these texts in a way useful to readers from within and without the tradition. Occasionally Marquardt’s bracketed corrections are superfluous or even perhaps incorrect (I’m thinking of his desire to change “sustenance” into “subsistence”), but overall he has provided an excellent, minimal scholarly apparatus, allowing these documents room to breathe and, more importantly, to speak.
Second, what does it mean to publish patriarchal blessings, and what shall modern Mormons do with predictions by Father Smith that clearly failed to materialize? For the modern believer unfamiliar with early Mormonism, there may be some challenging material here, and modern sensibility about the patriarchal blessing is that outsiders ought not have access to it. These likely explain why this publication is from a critical press and by a critical compiler, rather than an official or semi-official publication. My personal view is that of Father Smith (as I understand him), that the church community will be edified in a far distant day (say 2007) by reading the entries in the Book of Patriarchal Blessings. And I am grateful to these blessings for giving me a better sense for what the early patriarchs were worried about, hoped for, and sought after. I don’t care that no one lived to 120 years or had guardian angels explode prison walls, I care that the Smiths were inhabiting a heavenly world, simultaneously both old and new. I care that they cared desperately about life and death and community, their children, their children’s children, and the myriad forms of kindred that the Zion society allowed to flourish.
These blessings are a gem for researchers and those interested in understanding important aspects of earliest Mormonism, as refracted through the lens of the Smith family patriarchs. I strongly recommend this book, congratulate Marquardt on his excellent contribution, and hope that the accessibility of these blessings will lead to their greater use in social, cultural, and religious histories of early Mormonism.
NB: I have already used the blessings in a treatment of physico-spiritual translation under revision and intend a fuller treatment later, which will include footnotes, historical contextualization, and the like. For now, you’ll have to read the Marquardt volume to get citation specifics.