British Israelism

In some ways, Joseph and the early Saints set about restoring, not just the practices of early Christianity, but also of ancient Israel. As such, they/we were both Christian

Photo of Odin from 1937 and 1942 church lesson manuals

Photo of Odin from 1937 and 1942 church lesson manuals

and Old Testament “primitivists,” seeking to restore the primitive, and presumably superior, institutions of a previous culture.

Since much of the bible is the story of the relationship of one tribe, ”the Israelites”with God, the primitivist Mormons were intensely interested in that tribe. They prepared for the “literal gathering of Israel,” the Book of Mormon identified a new world people as Israelites, and the European Saints, though non-Israelite “Gentiles,” considered themselves to be spiritually of Israel, or to be of Israel through adoption.

But many Saints came to view themselves as literally of Israel; they believed they were genetically descended from Israel (through Ephraim). The Mormon tendency towards a literal “Israelism” seems to have played out over time. First the Smith family was identified as literal descendants of Israel. Later, as Brigham Young was describing Joseph Smith as a “pure Ephraimite,” many Mormons began to assume that all or almost all of the Saints were Israelites. Mauss and Green show this trend was strengthened in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries as the Saints were influenced by the Protestant religious movement of “Anglo” or “British Israelism.”

Anglo Israelism was the belief that the peoples of Northern European nations were descended principally from the “lost” tribes of Israel who migrated there after Assyria conquered Israel in 877 B.C. British Israelism was a variant on the theme that viewed the British Isles as being populated principally by descendants of the favored tribe of Ephraim.

Did we Mormons become adherents of Anglo Israelism / British Israelism? I suggest that we didn’t formally adopt the belief as official doctrine/theology. But, for a few decades we repeated and extended the claims of British Israelism in sufficient numbers of church-published books, magazines, lesson texts, and sermons, that it could appear we certainly had accepted British Israelism.

After giving some examples below of Mormons preaching British Israelism in the previous century, the questions I’m going to get to are:

1. When was the last time (if ever) you heard British Israelism passed around within Mormonism as a valid concept?

2. I think our literal Israelism is fading, and that as a church we are taking a more allegorical/symbolic/spiritual view of “Abrahamic lineage.” Do you have counterexamples or related anecdotes? Do you disagree?

A quick and incomplete primer on the history of British Israelism:
We Mormons weren’t unique in creating for ourselves a literal Israelite heritage that had a distinctly English air. Other contemporaneous Christian groups had done the same, including the Christian Israelites in England (ca. 1822), Nathaniel Wood and the New Israelites of Middletown, Vermont (ca: 1800), and the followers of London-based Richard Brothers, who in 1794 pronounced himself the “Prince and Prophet of the Hebrews.”

The most prominent early book that preached British Israelism was John Wilson’s 1840 Lectures on Our Israelitish Origin.

By the 1870s, British Israelism had become a formal movement among protestant Christians, complete with societies, chapters, and monthly magazines in both England and the U.S. Many Mormons who had already come to view themselves as Israelites were receptive to the movement. In the 1870s George Reynolds published a series of articles in the Millennial Star that promoted British Israelism using arguments and quotes from the prominent B-I writers of the day, including John Wilson, A. B. Grimaldi, and Charles Smyth. In 1883 George Reynolds published his Israelism writings in a book, Are We of Israel? Reynolds became one of the 7 presidents of the 70 in 1890, and the book went through at least 7 editions; the 1916 edition was published as a class text by the Church’s Deseret Sunday School Union; the last edition was published in 1952 by the church-owned Deseret News Press.

But that was just the first Mormon British Israel work. There were dozens that followed. The high point of excitement for British Israelism within Mormonism seems to have been the middle 1920s through the 1930s, and into the first part, at least, of the 1940s. This follows just a few years after the high point of British Israelism in England, and it roughly matches the timeline of an international interest in lineage and racial “purity.” A few of many examples are found in Mexico (ejecting the Chinese), the United States (think of our immigration laws, our eugenics movement, the racial purity laws), and with hindsight, most strikingly, Germany.

If you grew up Mormon in the first half of the 20th century, you were likely to be taught over and over–in Sunday School, genealogy, and priesthood lessons, in stake and general conferences, in church magazines, books, and pamphlets–that you were literally an Israelite, directly descended from Ephraim. This teaching would come in at least two forms:

1. The teaching one might call “Mormon Israelism” was that Ephraim’s descendants were scattered among all nations, but that almost all Mormons were Ephraimites (for some, even “pure” Ephraimites) because the people that had responded to the missionary message were the select few with Israel in their veins. It was taught (including by Joseph Smith) and assumed by some that the more pure the Israelite blood, the more open a person was to the Mormon message.

2. Somewhat in conflict with this, you would also have been taught Mormon Anglo or British Israelism: that almost all Mormons were Israelites (and to some, pure Israelites), because the Saints were of Northern European stock (largely British), which was the place the not-so-lost tribes (mainly Ephraim) had settled.

In the 20th century, the main church leaders and authors who preached Israelism and British Israelism were Church Historian and Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, apostle and First Presidency member Anthony Ivins, Asst. Church Historian Andrew Jenson, and officers of the Utah Genealogical Society such as Archibald Bennett and James Anderson.

In dozens of articles, books, and general conference talks, these men played a significant role in teaching a couple of generations of Saints that they were literal descendants of Israel, with detailed proofs that the not-so-lost ten tribes had settled either Northern Europe or Great Britain taken directly from the prominent British-Israel works. Anderson, in God’s Covenant Race, From Patriarchal Times to the Present, a 1937 book published by the Deseret News Press, even claimed (incorrectly) Mormon credit for starting the British-Israel Movement through the church’s 1830s missionary work in England (154-155). The 1938 and later editions of the book included an appendix with 127 pages of articles copied verbatim from the “Anglo-Israel Federation” magazine Destiny.

One collection of Mormon British-Israelism teachings was the 1942 Sunday School course book, Birthright Blessings; its 48 lessons included topics such as “The Chosen Race Being Gathered,” “Early Israelite Colonies,” “Mound Builders of Europe,” “Sagas and Civilization of Scandinavia,” “Who Are the Anglo-Saxons?,” “Early Welsh Customs,” ” Ancient Irish Pedigrees,” and “The Royal House of David.”

A very similar collection was the 1937 Junior Genealogy Class manual, Children of the Covenant. Its 40 lessons covered most of the Birthright topics mentioned and others such as “A White and a Blessed People,” “The Day of Ephraim,” and “The New Race of Israel.” The activity for one of the lessons instructed students to “Write a one page explanation, and read it in class or in a public meeting, of the topic: “My Heritage as a Descendant of Ephraim.”

Articles preaching British Israelism and Mormon Israelism were also common in the quarterly journal of the Church’s Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine.

Examples of this were the paired 1930 articles, “Mission of Ephraim,” by Joseph Fielding Smith, and “Children of Ephraim,” by Archibald Bennett.

The latter even contained a detailed explanation and ancestral charts explaining how the Norse God Odin (Woden) was ancestor of “most of the kingly and noble races of the north,” and therefore, of Anglo-Saxons and Mormons. Consequently, you can find Mormon family trees from that period that include both Odin and Thor (there’s a current example of this in my extended family). Odin is also discussed in detail in the Birthright Blessings and Children of the Covenant manuals, in a lesson called Sagas and Civilization of Scandinavia that recounts Icelander Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga Saga. Both books included a photo of a B.E.F. Fogelberg’s statute of Odin (the graphic at the top of this post).
Returning to the questions:

1. I think our literal Israelism (the belief that most Mormons are genetic descendants of Israel, particularly Ephraim or Manasssah) is fading, and that as a church we are taking a more allegorical/symbolic/spiritual view of “Abrahamic lineage.” Do you have counterexamples or related anecdotes? Do you disagree?

2. When was the last time (if ever) you heard British Israelism passed around within Mormonism as a valid concept?

Stirling Adams


  • Arnold H. Green, “Gathering and Election: Israelite Descent and Universalism in Mormon Discourse,” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 25 (Spring 99)
  • Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (University of Illinois Press, 2003), esp. 17-36, 269-272.
  • Mauss, “In Search of Ephraim: Traditional Mormon Conceptions of Lineage and Race,” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 25 (Spring 99) 131-173
  • Mauss, “Mormonism’s Worldwide Aspirations and its Changing Conceptions of Race and Lineage,” Dialogue, 34:3-4 (Fall/Winter 2001) 103-133.
  • Birthright Blessings: Genealogical Training Class (Deseret Sunday School Union Board, 1942), 48 Sunday School Lessons
  • Children of the Covenant: A Lesson Book for Second Year Junior Genealogical Classes (Genealogical Society of Utah, 1937), 40 lessons
  • Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Issues from the 1920s-1940s.


  1. Stirling,
    British Israelism is alive and well among British Mormons. It’s not something you’d hear very often from the pulpit, but when asked to explain the tremendous missionary success of mid-19th century in Britain, and Britain’s prominence on the world stage, I think many British Mormons would use some form of British Israelism. That would include my dad! (He actively investigated the Worldwide Church of God, whose founder–Herbert Armstrong–was a major proponent of Britain and America’s Israelite lineage.)

    As long as Patriarchal Blessings overwhelmingly invoke Ephraim as a lineage, will this not continue? (That’s an interesting topic right there.)

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Nice post, Stirling.

    I agree that BI is slowly fading, but I would emphasize the word “slowly.” One continues to hear assurances that the majority of PBs are “literal” declarations of lineage (whatever that would mean; “literal” in this context is never defined), and only a minority are by “adoption.” While not British Israelism by name, perhaps, these concepts derive from BI.

    I must confess, I’ve never quite understood what significance a declaration of lineage is supposed to have. My PB tells me that I am of Joseph through a mixed lineage; so am I less righteous or worthy than a “pure Ephraimite”? Since I don’t put much stock in such declarations, I must admit I’ve always taken a bit of perverse pride in the fact that mine is different from most everyone else’s. Maybe that’s why I was given the different declaration in the first place! (g)

  3. FWIW, Jan Shipps considers it faded.

  4. Whence came they? Israel, Britain, and the Restoration by Vaughn Hansen is a more recent work (the 90s I would guess). While I have never heard of Vaughn Hansen I know several British saints who have read the book and consider it gospel. I notice the same thing as Ronan, while not necessarily preached I think many British saints assume we are of Israel. On a side note, does anybody have any good references for work that deals with spirituality in Great Britain pre-restoration, I’m particularly interested in ancient spirituality ie the first few centuries AD.

  5. Kevin,

    That is interesting that your PB gives a “mixed lineage” to you. My paternal grandmother’s PB simply says she is a descendant of Joseph. Everybody else in my line, including mine, says Ephraim. I don’t know what that means, if anything.

  6. (Gomez – where are you from?)

  7. Manchester originally, Provo right now, hopefully Cambridgeshire in the future.

  8. Well, I’m mostly Irish descent, and mine says Ephraim too. It would be interesting to hear a Patriach say, off the record, how they make the assignment. Irish are mostly Celt, not Anglo-Saxon or Normand. No way I’m closely related to the Limey devils! Must be an adopted Ephraimite.

  9. No way I’m closely related to the Limey devils!

    Hah! Funny how the 1942 manual Stirling mentions has articles on the Irish and the Welsh too. Celts and Limeys, both, then.

    I too would love to know what, if anything (other than the Spirit, of course), guides Patriarchs to favour Ephraim.

  10. Here’s a 1991 Ensign piece on the subject by Daniel Ludlow. He answers “yes” to the question “Are most members of the Church literal descendants of Abraham by birth?”

    It is difficult to understand these teachings, because it’s never clear to me whether “lineage” refers to patrilineal descent, majority descent, *any* descent, or something else. The most natural interpretation would be that it refers to *any* descent, but then the mathematics of population mixing strongly suggest that *everyone* with any European ancestry is in some way descended from Abraham, and from everyone else in the OT besides. (I’ve made this point before, and I’m afraid I’m in danger of becoming somewhat of an internet crank on the subject.)

    This 1995 talk by President Faust contains the following paragraph:

    Some might be disturbed because members of the same family have blessings declaring them to be of a different lineage. A few families are of a mixed lineage. We believe that the house of Israel today constitutes a large measure of the human family. Because the tribes have intermixed one with another, one child may be declared to be from the tribe of Ephraim and another of the same family from Manasseh or one of the other tribes. The blessing of one tribe, therefore, may be dominant in one child, and the blessing of another tribe dominant in yet another child.

    Again, this doesn’t make a lot of sense once one realizes that *all* Europeans have some descent from *all* the tribes. Allowing for mixed lineage seems to show that he’s not limiting discussion to patrilineal descent. But then the idea that only “a few” families “may be” of a mixed lineage is certainly wrong. And it’s not clear what it means for the blessings of one tribe to “be dominant”

    In general I think this whole idea is slowly on it’s way into the dustbin. Not only is it out of harmony with current societal values, it doesn’t even make sense on its own terms.

  11. Ed,

    I think he is referring to having Patriarchal blessings of different lineage in the same family. In which case his comment makes sense as pointing out that this means different blessings matter for different people, rather than making some claim about blood lines.

  12. Last Lemming says:

    OK, stay with me on this one. You can substitute anything you like for “monotheism” below.

    Say that in the course of human evolution, a random(?) genetic mutation arose in somebody that predisposes one toward monotheism. This predisposition need not reside in a single gene, but could be the result of a certain combination of dominant and recessive genes that first occured in our hypothetical person (let’s call him Abraham).

    Now Abraham’s descendants are the only ones with any chance of having the correct combination of genes (because they are the only ones with the mutation), but not all of them will have it. Nevertheless, if we interpret Genesis 20:12 literally (i.e. Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister), Isaac would have had an exceptionally high probability of inheriting the proper combination. Other closely related tribesmen would also have had most of the combination in place, just not the mutation that put Abraham over the top. But marrying within that tribe–a custom that was carefully followed–would still increase the probability of passing on the correct combination.

    Fast forward to today. The probability of having the correct combination of genes is directly proportional to the number of lines through which you are directly descended from Abraham. Those that have the correct combination could be termed the “literal” seed.

    So what about adoption? Note that I postulated that the mutation created a predisposition toward monotheism. That is not deterministic. One could still be monotheistic, it would just be more difficult. Those who choose to do so despite lacking the predisposition could be termed “adopted” seed.

  13. In #9, Ronan writes, “I too would love to know what, if anything (other than the Spirit, of course), guides Patriarchs to favour Ephraim.”
    In a general conference address on April 7, 1929, Church Patriarch Hyrum G. Smith asked that same question, and here’s the 1929 answer (Mauss discusses the contemporary answer in both All Abraham’s Children and in the Dialogue article “Mormonism’s Worldwide Aspirations and its Changing Conceptions of Race and Lineage,” and I’ll try to summarize that later):

    “It is the policy and order of the Church at the present time to have at least one patriarch in each stake, who is authorized to bless the members of the stake, and declare their lineage, in a similar way to the manner in which Jacob blessed his grandsons, and his own sons. At the present time in the Church [1929] the great majority of those receiving their blessings are declared to be of the house and lineage of Ephraim, while many others are designated as members of the house of Manasseh ; but up to the present time we have discovered that those who are leaders in Israel, no matter from where they come, no matter out of what nation they have come, are of Ephraim; while the blood of Manasseh is found in the tribes and nations of the Indians of North and South America. They are great, they are wonderfully blessed, but Ephraim seems to prevail in the greater blessings, in the greater responsibilities, and in faithfulness to the Lord’s work. And so people have wondered about it. Why do the patriarchs declare that most of us are of Ephraim? [Emphasis added]
    The Day of Ephraim
    It is my testimony that “today” is the day of Ephraim. It is the day which the Lord has set to fulfil his promises made in the times of the ancient patriarchs, when he said that he would scatter Israel to the four corners of the world, and that Ephraim should be scattered in all the nations, and then in the “last days” be gathered out again. Many are being gathered out by our missionaries, as “one of a family and two of a city;” and they are found here, gathered into a gathering place appointed of the Lord, and they are receiving his blessings. This is why so many of us are declared to be of Ephraim.”
    Utah Genealogical Historical Magazine, 1929, Vol. 20, July, 123-125.

  14. We are all of mixed lineage. The patriarchal blessing merely describes the lineage through which our blessing will come.

    I wouldn’t mind being of Gad, because he “would overcome at the last.” Or Asher, whose bread “shall be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties.” Does this mean a Krispy Kreme franchise is coming my way?

    But there is no doubt that the greatest blessings were to come through Joseph. And from Joseph, through Ephraim.

    Since the Lord controls both geography and lineage, we are born where He chooses. And the blessing come to us through the lineage.

  15. Last Lemming, that’s a pretty crazy theory, but at least it’s the first one I’ve heard that isn’t incoherent!

  16. Ok, I had never heard of British Israelism, but this post explains a lot, including why Thor and Odin show up on my family tree. Also, my pretty progressive parents have continued to be quite uncomfortable with miscegenation among Mormons. I’ve never delved into the why, but perhaps it’s because they feel that white Anglo-Saxon members are Ephraimites, and while not “superior,” are still God’s “chosen” race, so it would be best not to mix with other races. hmmm.

  17. Count me as another heir of Odin.

    There are a couple of things that I think are important. First is that if indeed there was a man named abraham and is the grandfather of Isreal, every single person on this planet is a literal decendent. Just like we are all related to Muhamed, Cunfucius, etc. Second is that as long as Patriarchal Blessings included lineage (which is taught to be one of the main differences between such a blessing and a regular Father’s blessing) some sort of Israelism will figure into Mormon belief.

    I agree with Jan Shipps, that the ethnic character of Mormon Israelism is past. We no longer call non-members gentiles and less-actives don’t self identify as Mormons.

    In reading this post, I was reminded of an 1855 discourse by Brigham:

    Take the Elders who are now in this house, and you can scarcely find one out of a hundred but what is of the house of Israel. It has been remarked that the Gentiles have been cut off, and I doubt whether another Gentile ever comes into this Church.

    Will we go to the Gentile nations to preach the Gospel? Yes, and gather out the Israelites, wherever they are mixed among the nations of the earth. What part or portion of them? The same part or portion that redeemed the house of Jacob, and saved them from perishing with famine in Egypt. …It is Ephraim that I have been searching for all the days of my preaching, and that is the blood which ran in my veins when I embraced the Gospel. If there are any of the other tribes of Israel mixed with the Gentiles we are also searching for them. Though the Gentiles are cut off, do not suppose that we are not going to preach the Gospel among the Gentile nations, for they are mingled with the house of Israel, and when we send to the nations we do not seek for the Gentiles, because they are disobedient and rebellious. We want the blood of Jacob, and that of his father Isaac and Abraham, which runs in the veins of the people. There is a particle of it here, and another there, blessing the nations as predicted.

    Take a family of ten children, for instance, and you may find nine of them purely of the Gentile stock, and one son or one daughter in that family who is purely of the Blood of Ephraim. It was in the veins of the father or mother, and was reproduced in the son or daughter, while all the rest of the family are Gentiles.
    (JD 2:269)

    I know that alot of people currently believe that the reason for Europes resistence to convert baptism is because all of Israel has already been converted.

  18. Let’s not forget that, according to Joseph Smith:

    … the effect of the Holy Ghost upon a Gentile, is to purge out the old blood, and make him actually of the seed of Abraham. That man that has none of the blood of Abraham (naturally) must have a new creation by the Holy Ghost. In such a case, there may be more of a powerful effect upon the body, and visible to the eye, than upon an Israelite, while the Israelite at first might be far before the Gentile in pure intelligence. (TPJS, pp. 149-150)

  19. Last Lemming says:

    In the realm of religious speculation, I take “not incoherent” to be a high compliment.

  20. Here’s an Mormon web site that teaches B-Israelism. A quick scan of this makes me think that that the “Holy Grail” legends in the Davinci Code are pretty similar to some of the British Israelism legends.

  21. Sterling, I love the Odin foto, I’ve added it to our on-line family tree ( I’m not sure how to break it to Grandma, though, that she is a direct descendant of a Norse God. My kids will be very ok with that aspect of our lineage.

  22. I remember reading, but I don’t remember where, an example of British Israel teachings among pale-skinned Mormons in South Africa. I assume it occured among Afrikaners and not Boers, but I don’t know. At the Mormon History Assoc. conference this May in Casper, Jeff Cannon is giving a session on “”Preaching to Africa’s White Tribe: Jesse Haven, the Afrikaners, and the First Mission to Africa.”
    I’ll ask him about it, as it would seem plausible Israelism would have been part of the toolkit of justifications of South African race-based civil and religious distinctions.

  23. Mark N. #18, by “let’s not forget” are you suggesting you regard the teaching is “true,” or do you mean let’s not forget it as an example of how we used to be a tribe-based religion?

  24. The “chosen race” concept is still attractive to many Mormons, including my father. In talking with him about whether after the advent of Christ and the teachings of the New Testament, there is any place at all for lineage distinctions, I’ve wondered, from a functionalist perspective, what are the causes of this type of thinking, both in the OT and in early Mormonism?
    ANy thoughts?

  25. Has anyone ever actually met a person who had a lineage other than Ephraim? In the mission field amoung the Navajo I met people who were Manasseh and Judah, but has anyone ever met someone who had been designated as being from any of the other tribes?

    I was always taught growing up that as the world opened up to missionary work more and more people would be found from the other tribes as part of the “literal gathering” of Isreal. At the time the nether most regions of Russia were put forward as the most likely place these tribes would be found. I have yet to hear of a large influx of Isacher or Ruben or Asher, etc., since the fall of communism.

    Also, it is my understanding that amoung the Jewish people, Jewish identity has always been transmitted matrilinealy. (i.e. if your mother is Jewish you are Jewish, even if your father is not Jewish). Does this conflict with LDS and BI efforts to establish a direct Patrilineal decent from Joseph/Ephraim?

  26. I’ve met folks from plenty of other tribes. I know a patriarch that was getting old and started diversifying lineages…it was put to a stop pretty quickly. That said, Mannasah isn’t completely uncommon among those of European descent (my uncle). I also know one Jewish convert who ended out Ephraim.

  27. Do Jews today self identify as being decendents of Judah, or is that something that is of no importance to them?

    What about LDS of African decent? From the quotes above it seems clear that traditionally decent from Ephraim was equated with those of white European decent. Are Africans today given PB’s designating them as Ephraim or another tribe, or are they typically designated as “adopted”?

    Just questions I have had over the years around this topic. This post has been informative to say the least. The business about Thor and Odin I had never heard before, does anyone have any other links on that topic?

  28. #27: “The business about Thor and Odin I had never heard before, does anyone have any other links on that topic?”

    An example of a British-Israel use of Odin that ties B-Israelism to the Holy Grail legends (as MHicks alludes to in #20) is in J. R. Church, Guardians of the Grail, Chapter 6, Prophecy Publications, 1989:

    “A clue to where the Merovingians possibly originated is found in ancient Norse mythology. Merovee claimed to be descended from Odin, one of the gods worshipped by the Teutonic people of northern Europe — after whom Odin’s Day (also called Woden’s Day), or Wednesday, was named. Note the spelling of the word “Odin.” Is it possible – could this be another way of spelling Dan, or could the name have evolved from the Israelite Lost Tribe of Dan? We shall analyze the possible Merovingian/Israelite connection in this chapter.”

    Wikipedia has some info:

    Thor Heyerdayl wrote The Hunt for Odin arguing he had found possible that evidence Odin was at one time a real carbon-based life form. This critical book review  (critical, as in critical of the book’s thesis) provides a good background of Snorri Sturla­son “Ynglinga Saga” and Odin legends.

    Then, Mormon Archibald Bennett’s “The Children of Ephraim” is another example of the use of Odin in Mormonism. Bennet may have written the Birthright Blessings and Children of the Covenant lesson about Odin, but I haven’t compared the three works with that question in mind).
    If the Mormon angle interests you, I’ll post somewhere the Birthright Blessings lesson on Odin and the Scandinavian legends.

  29. Last Lemming, Have you heard of the God gene theory? I guess that would fit in with your ideas.

  30. Aaron Brown says:

    I’ve always thought this was a fascinating topic. Mauss’ and Green’s articles in the Spring 1999 JMHA (that Stirling references) are two of my favorite Mormon academic articles of the last 10 years. Really interesting stuff.

    I taught Gospel Doctrine last Sunday, and although the student manual didn’t have much to say on the topic of patriarchal blessings and “lineage” (as I recall), the Teacher’s Handbook introduced the topic at some length. Thus, I devoted the bulk of the class to it. Alas, I’m sorry to say the discussion wasn’t that interesting … but in a good way! I couldn’t find anybody who wanted to invoke the “literal” understanding of lineage; I think this was due to a combination of (a) people who had never thought much about it; and (b) people who had thought enough about it to recognize how ridiculous it is. At one point, I was mildly chastized for raising the question of “what lineage means” at all, rather than just promoting the more modern understanding, and calling it a day. I responded that I agreed with the substantive views of the commenter on what declaring/assigning “lineage” means, but that there were a lot of wards in the Church where we probably wouldn’t reach unanimity of interepretation on this question. That brought a laugh, which I took to mean that many in the audience knew exactly what I was talking about. I guess this must mean that members of the Church in Seattle, on average, are just more enlightened than everyone else in the Church! :)

    I still find this stuff incredibly strange. The modern invocation of lineage strikes me as a vestigial trait that belongs in an earlier era, when preoccupations with racial hierarchies and literal descent were in vogue. I recognize that we can (and do) see our lineages as referring to specific blessings (albeit ones we don’t seem able to identify, most of the time) we will receive, rather than literal geneological descriptions, but the whole preoccupation often strikes me as outmoded. At best, knowing our “lineage” seems to spark bizarre speculations and feelings of mystery and wonder, but seems to do little else for us.

    Aaron B

  31. Talon,

    I think the matrilineal descent was viewed by the ancients as an established witnessed fact that couldn’t be disputed. A man, on the other hand, never knows. So a patrilineal descent was properly viewed as only a claim that couldn’t be proven back then. Why that didn’t carry into this tangent of early mormonism is strange.

  32. Ed, in # 10 writes: “the mathematics of population mixing strongly suggest that *everyone* with any European ancestry is in some way descended from Abraham, and from everyone else in the OT besides.”
    Ed, I don’t know if you are thinking of the “Modelling the Recent Common Ancestry of All Living Humans” article (Rohde, Olson, and Chang, Nature 431: 562 – 66). It sounds like it.

    In their conservative simulation, Rohde et al. estimate the date of the MRCA (the Most Recent Common Ancestor of everyone now alive today) at ≈ 1,415 BC. This model includes conservative assumptions such as in AD 1500, only 55 people will leave each country per generation.
    In their less conservative simulation, they estimate an MRCA date of ≈ 55 AD. Either way, 1,415 BC., 55 AD, WOW! Who would have thunk that? (Not me, but it turns out other scientists, anthropologists, and even Hugh Nibley, have speculated for a long time that a common ancestry would be found at a relatively very recent date).
    Rohde at all, claim their mathematical model is fairly robust. Aggressive variations in their assumptions have only minor affects on the dates. For example, if migration rate across the Bering Strait is assumed to be one person in each direction every ten generations, rather than ten per generation (from conservative model), MRCA date is increased by only 250 years.

    On a related note, Dawkins, in The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (43) says that Chang has another article explaining his modeling of genealogy in which Chang says on the average, 80% of the individuals in any generation will be ancestors of everybody alive at some point in the distant future.
    So, is it a realistic possibility that Abraham is actually an ancestor of everyone alive today? It is possible, according to these articles, and if so, everyone alive today would also be descendants of many other people. Rohde et al. finish their article with that idea:

    “[N]o matter the languages we speak or the colour of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who laboured to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu.”

  33. Stirling,
    I find that last quote from Rohde et al. inspiring. It adds new meaning to the idea that we are all brothers and sisters.

  34. Responding to 27 and 31, lineage assignment in the Old Testament was patrilineal, meaning a child was assigned the father’s lineage.
    Three other options for lineage assignment are 1) matrilineal, where the child is assigned the mother’s lineage. 2) hypodescent, where a mixed-lineage child is assigned the status of the socially subordinate parent (this occurred in America when the the child of an African slave mother and a white slave master father was defined as “black), and 3) hyperdescent, where a mixed-lineage child is assigned the lineage of the socially dominant parent.
    The early Mormons talked in Mormons talked in patrilineal terms, following the lead of the OT, but usually we actually followed practice of hyperdescent. For example, it was common to say that Israel literally scattered “among all the nations of the earth.” But, Saints were considered of the lineage of Ephraim with little analysis of whether Ephraim was actually the patrilineal ancestor. Any Ephraimite lineage was sufficient to be “of Ephraim”—that’s “hyperdescent.”
    Of course, a big exception is that we did follow the American lead in using hypodescent when it came to people with African American ancestry. That is still the common practice in America (that’s why people consider Tiger Woods to be “black,” for example). But relevant to #27, check this Mormon counterexample out: Mauss tells of an interviewee recounting “a conversation he had overheard a in Johannesburg, South Africa, in which an area president instructed a stake patriarch that black church members seeking blessing were to be assigned to the lineage of Ephraim as a matter of church policy.” (All Abraham’s Children, 40).

  35. Stirling, yes I was referring to the work by Rohde, Chang, and others, although I don’t think I know all these findings as well as you do. The points you make are very interesting.

    One thing to remember, is that common ancestry dates for all *Europeans* are certainly much later than for the world as a whole. It’s hard to say whether any Israelite ancestry penetrated isolated populations like aboriginal Australians, but we can be certain that it long ago made its way into all of the area around Europe and the Mediteranean. The rhetoric from church leaders throughout the years on this topic makes it clear that they didn’t really understand this fact.

  36. This highlights Aaron’s point in #30, that this lineage preoccupation is misplaced to begin with. I’d argue our self-definition of Mormons as a “chosen race” was a misfortunate detour from the iron rod of the New Testament and Book of Mormon rejection of tribalism.

  37. At best, knowing our “lineage” seems to spark bizarre speculations and feelings of mystery and wonder, but seems to do little else for us.

    Russell M. Nelson had this to say in 1988, which may be too far in the past to figure here:

    What does this ancient history have to do with you and your identity? It has everything to do with your identity. It also relates to the direction your lives may take, your choices, and your challenges. It should even influence your selection of your partner in marriage.

  38. It should even influence your selection of your partner in marriage.”

  39. Jonathan M. says:

    As someone who was born and raised within (Reform) Judaism, joining the Church in my native London at 18 in 1975, I found myself developing a friendship with a convert who was the son of a (now deceased) prominent member of the British-Israelite movement. My fellow convert, not surprisingly, would often point out similarities as he saw them, between British-Israelism and Church doctrine. I confess to having always being sceptical about such claims of “Israelite” origins amongst Anglo-Saxon persons. Perhaps it will only be a matter of time before some bright spark begins the elusive
    search for “Israelite” DNA amongst those of Anglo descent, if indeed, this has not already happened.

  40. Getting back to an incomplete answer to Ronan’s #9 question, and the #13 follow-up, Mauss writes:

    “With the dispersion of missionary efforts during the 20th century, references to lineage came to acquire a certain degree of ambiguity. …No doubt many, even down to the present, still regard the “declaration of lineage” in one’s blessing as referring to literal genealogical descent, or “blood.” Yet others take a less literal view and use alternative terms for “declaring” lineage — terms such as assign, identify, specify, or simply give. In my own recent questioning of at least two dozen stake patriarchs about their understanding on this point, I found that their explanations ranged across a continuum from literal to functional. Some patriarchs regarded “Ephraim” as simply the designation given those most responsible for the Lord’s kingdom in these latter days. Others simply mentioned Ephraim routinely unless inspired to specify an unusual lineage (perhaps for obvious “racial” reasons). Still others sidestepped the question by explaining that while lineage assignment occurs by divine inspiration, it has nothing necessarily to do with actual ancestry.
    Already in the 1950s, the Church patriarch Eldred G. Smith spoke of the “declaration” of lineage as referring simply to the “the tribe through which the promises of inheritance shall come”…. he did not interpret his declarations of lineage to refer to literal descent and was trying to turn the attention of those he blessed away from a preoccupation with lineage in toward the content of the blessing itself. Current instructions to patriarchs “contemplate an inspired declaration of …lineage” without specifying the meaning of that phrase.” (Mauss, All Abraham’s Children, (34-35)

  41. We live in a time when the popular culture urges us to reject any notion of racial and ethnic identity (unless, of course, we form part of the previously discriminated against identities, whereupon we are immediately encouraged to emphasize our racial or ethnic heritage). And there are good reasons for this, as there was a great deal of unfair discrimination based on those in the past.

    On the other hand, the good parts of racial and ethnic identity are not necessarily bad. Perhaps not fundamentally important, but our identity becomes part of our ethos.

    As members of the Church, we tend to reflect the culture of our time and place. So it is understandable that we tend to view it as not important, but that does not mean necessarily that it is not.

  42. I think my patriarchal blessing says I’m a literal descendant of Ephraim (could be wrong, must hunt down the copy to be sure) but I remember being miffed when I heard it, because I’d been hoping for Judah, or, you know, anything else. My father’s father’s family was Jewish, and came from Lithuania, and I got the same tribe as all the kids who had ten or fifteen generations of Americans, and British citizens before that? Admittedly, I was 16, so I was probably just searching for something to be annoyed by. But still, at the time, it rankled.

  43. Thanks for the excellent post Stirling. Along with Ed and Stapley, I have posted on and quoted that Rohde, Olson, and Chang study extensively here in the ‘nacle. Your research really puts the Mormon leanings toward tribalism in a more clear light for me.

  44. On the issue of to what extent is Israelism still among us, Armand Mauss wrote.“The final decades of the twentieth century brought a virtual end to the LDS focus on lineage and ethnicity in interpreting the spiritual histories and destines of the various peoples of the earth. This focus has been displaced increasingly by the Pauline universalism that was also present in Mormonism from the beginning, and, of course, in New Testament Christianity all along. In symbolic terms, one might say that the blood of Christ has finally replaced the blood of Israel as the more important theological idea for Mormons…”

    But, though I agree that he accurately describes a trend, “virtual end” seems to overstate the conclusion. In the late 1960s, when Mauss surveyed samples of Mormons in SLC and San Francisco, he found that “78% of SLC Mormons and 62% of San Francisco Mormons agreed that it was “definitely true” or “probably true” that “most Latter-day Saints are literal descendants of one or more of the ancient Israelite Tribes.” (“Mormonism’s Worldwide Aspirations,” 110-111, discussed more in Angel and the Beehive, the Mormon Struggle with Assimilation)
    If it was 78% in the late 60s among SLC Mormons, I’m guessing it is 50% now (much less among converts). But, I would guess a review of Ensign and other church-sponsored literature would show instances of Israelism in our published media are even more reduced over this time period.

  45. I don’t have time to post in the Bloggernacle very often, so excuse my long comment, but I find this topic personally interesting. In my experience, I agree, literal British Isrealism is fading, although it is alive and kicking in some small towns I know. Most people I talk to are comfortable with the idea of adoption or at least a pretty dilute ancestry that is not necessarily unique. Although this is a bit off-topic, what I have observed is an interesting dichotomy in how people describe the allegorical/spiritual/symbolic aspect of those blessings. I’m with Kevin (way back in comment #2), in that I do not fully understand what a declaration of lineage means, regardless of whether you are adopted or a literal descendent. My patriarchal blessing puts me in the tribe of Manassa. In my family, we have those who are of the tribe Ephraim, Manassa and Joseph. I have found that in classes where they describe the blessings of Isreal, the description will vary depending on whether or not the instructor knows that I am not of the tribe of Ephraim. If they know, the significance of the different blessings between Ephraim and Manassa is downplayed, and it is emphasized that God is no respecter of persons. If they don’t know, they teach that Ephraim has the birthright, and therefore the greater blessings, that those who were called to the tribe of Ephraim were chosen for their righteousness in the pre-existence, and that this is the age of Ephraim where they are responsible for leadership and missionary work in the church.
    So which is it? Does declared lineage matter or does it not? Are your blessings (assuming you are Ephraim) greater than mine or are they not? If they are, what does that mean? Were you more righteous than I was in the pre-existence? Are you more beloved of God than I am? I joke that the blessings of Manassa means that I don’t have to worry about any leadership callings, and as for missionary work, well that is your job, not mine :). I admit I take some perverse pride in being different, but I do find that my lineage declaration seems to widen the gulf between myself and the rest of the church, rather than drawing me in. I do find discussions of lineage uncomfortable, and apparently other people do too when placed face-to-face with a real non-Ephramite, as opposed to some abstract “other” . As more people come face-to-face with members of these “other” tribes, will the declared supremacy of Ephraim fade to the side, as has British Isrealism?

  46. Larrea asks if lineage matters.
    IM(H)O, it has no spiritual/metaphysical/eternal meaning at all. My conclusion is drawn from my reading of the scriptures (focussing on the bulk of N.T., D&C, and BoM scriptures, with a deemphasis on OT texts), the principle behind AoF 2, and my experience with a fairly wide variety of humans.

  47. In support of the previous comment, this is from Howard W. Hunter, just barely after the revocation on the ban against allowing blacks into the temple:

    “The [BYU] campus and those who come here are testaments to the truth that the gospel of Jesus Christ transcends nationality and color, crosses cultural lines, and blends distinctiveness into a common brotherhood. This is the way the Church feels about each one of you—and it is about this common brotherhood that I wish to speak.
    I take as a theme a passage from the Book of Mormon referring to the Lord’s relationship to the children of men throughout the earth in which it is stated:
    “And he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Ne. 26:33).
    From this statement it is clear that all men are invited to come unto him and all are alike unto him. Race makes no difference; color makes no difference; nationality makes no difference.
    The brotherhood of man is literal. We are all of one blood and the literal spirit offspring of our eternal Heavenly Father. Before we came to earth we belonged to his eternal family. We associated and knew each other there. Our common paternity makes us not only literal sons and daughters of eternal parentage, but literal brothers and sisters as well. This is a fundamental teaching of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
    Howard W. Hunter, “All Are Alike unto God,” Ensign, June 1979, 72 (originally delivered as talk to fourteen-stake fireside, Marriott Center, Brigham Young University, 4 February 1979).$fn=default.htm

  48. Morgan (#24) asked, “from a functionalist perspective, what are the causes” of Mormon Israelism? Good question. Here are some possibilities for the motivations/causes for our development of a “genetics of salvation” with some peoples more, or at least differently, “chosen” than others:
    1. Mauss argues the “racialist construction of Mormon ethnic identity functioned in large part as a defensive ideology to counter the pervasive nineteenth-century image of Mormons as a pariah people.” (“Mormonism’s Worldwide Aspirations and its Changing Conceptions of Race and Lineage,” Dialogue, 34:3-4 110.)
    2. Mormons were very interested in authority, particularly authority to hold the priesthood. Israelism gave us another means of establishing a claim to that authority (as holders of priesthood “by right of lineage”).
    3. We were swept along with an international interest lineage and racial “purity,” and race “betterment” (eugenics). The causes of that larger societal movement were also driving us. What were those causes? I don’t know, economic trends and concerns, immigration patterns, WWI, …?
    4. Our “restoration” and “primitivist” instincts were so strong that, in some ways, we de-emphasized the text and theology of the N.T., skipping back to pay more attention to the tribe-focused O.T.
    5. It helped provide a logical justification for the policy of denying priesthood and temple participation to people of black African descent.
    Disagreements, suggestions of other motivations/causes?

  49. The causal question in #48 is what I find most interesting. Yes, it is interesting that many Mormons believed this, and that some still do, but I find the how and why questions more engaging.
    An addition to the list might be a limited and selective (very selective) literalist approach to ancient scripture.

  50. On the development of Israelism within Mormonism, I see that as one of several instances of Mormon lineage/race issues. Another obvious instance is how we constructed race, particularly the “black” race, (or, better, I should say how we accepted the Amerian culture’s construction of race).
    So it is no surprise to me that the list (#48-49) of causes/motivations behind Israelism would also seem to apply pretty well to our development of a ban against blacks participating in the temple.

  51. Meta genealogy: I hadn’t known that Seventy George Reynolds had a hand in spreading British Israelism (this info is in the original post). He was joseph Fielding Smith’s father-in-law, who was Bruce R. Mcconkie’s father-in-law, who is Joseph Fielding McConkie’s father. All four generations of men taught, and the youngest continues to teach, Israelism. Is a hankering for a theological importance for lineage a family trait? IOW, is lineage-ism in the blood?
    Is it coincidence that JfS and the two Mcconkie’s were, each in their time, among the biggest Mormon critics of evolution and “intellectual scholarship?”

  52. São Paulo says:

    #34 describes 4 methods of determining lineage: patrilineal, matrilineal, hypodescent, and hyperdescent (the latter two being new terms and concepts for me).

    As discused above, these various methods have been differently relevant (sometimes not at all) in various cultures and periods. Let me add to that list a fifth method–lineage by belief. You are assigned a lineage depending upon the religious practice you adopt. This was introduced in the New Testament, though it wasn’t unique to the N.T.; there are Old Testament examples, such as when servants or slaves of Abraham come to be treated the same as of geneaological descendants of Abraham.

    To me it seems like the lineage message of the N.T. is that blood lineage doesn’t matter. Lineage by worship/service/belief/faith does.

  53. São Paulo says:

    #36:”…this lineage preoccupation is misplaced to begin with. I’d argue our self-definition of Mormons as a “chosen race” was a misfortunate detour from the NT and BoM rejection of tribalism.”

    Amen. A question: What if lineage-based concepts were completely removed from our theology? Would we lose any important piece of the Gospel?
    If we never hear another mention of the possiblity of receiving priesthood “by right of birth,” if our Patriarchal blessings no longer mentioned lineage, etc., would we miss any doctrine essential to salvation?

  54. If the Mormon angle interests you, I’ll post somewhere the Birthright Blessings lesson on Odin and the Scandinavian legends.

    Yes this does interest me very much, please post more when able. Thanks!

  55. How much does this theology matter?
    I agree that it appears that the assumed facts behind British Israelism were in error, But, where’s the harm? It seems that British-Israelism and Israelism have led Saints to think of themselves as a chosen people with a specific calling? If that hasn’t harmed anyone, where’s the foul?

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