This post is a continuation from Part 1 and includes my response to Lavina Fielding Anderson at the 2010 MHA Conference in Independence, MO.
Lavina is well known as the editor extraordinaire of Mormon Studies. She also edited Lucy’s Book a critical edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s family history. She is currently working on Lucy’s biography (I can’t wait). In this session, she presented some of her work looking at the early Patriarchal Blessings of Joseph Smith Senior. She outlined areas of emphasis and areas for future work.
Lavina has only shared a small portion of her research into the Patriarchal blessings of Joseph Smith Senior and in doing so, she has shown us a rich vein rarely mined. I agree with her perspective that these blessings are an integral window into Mormon belief and practice. In my own research this is manifest to a high degree. Female ritual healing in Kirtland is primarily evidenced through its discussion in patriarchal blessings. And the evolution of adoption theology is not only evidenced in the text of the blessings, but in the act of blessing (Sam Brown presented on this previously in the conference and has a forthcoming article and book that treats this in detail ).
In discussing the meaning of these blessings for the converts, she rightly contrasted the Calvinist struggle over assurance. But even for populist evangelicals, the prospect of regeneration and subsequent backsliding was terrifying. In the cited blessings we not only find the seeds of Mormonism’s sacramentalized perseverance and a deeply pathetic manifestation of a caring God, but a scene not easily translated to modern Mormonism. While the idea that humans are the “children of God” is inherent to modern Mormon belief; this concept is outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity and outside of early Mormonism. The recipients of these blessings would have held the standard belief that humans are creatures, created beings that only had the potential of being adopted into the family of God. These blessings both highlight this belief and the poignancy involved in its actually application; rereading again a quoted blessing from Lavina’s presentation: “the Lord thy God is now thy Father.”
I would also like to submit a few additions to Lavina’s suggestions for future research. Regarding a comparison of individual Patriarchs and their roles in the community, I suggest studying all of the patriarchs, and notably John Smith, not just the first three. A member of the Anointed Quorum and an intimate supporter of the succeeding Twelve, John’s blessings are saturated with temple imagery and are as important for the late-Nauvoo and Utah periods as his antecessors were for theirs. The role that patriarchs played in the development of healers and as healers themselves is ripe for exploration (working on it) – really, the role of patriarch as village holy man. And regarding the development of “sealing,” patriarchal blessings illustrate well the collapse of theology and liturgy into the temple (again, cue John Smith).
- The Summer 2011 issue of Journal of Mormon History will include papers by Sam and me on adoption. Sam goes to 1844 and I go after 1844.