The Gathering of Israel

So I get a call from the ward mission leader last Sunday (a good friend of mine) asking me to teach the Gospel Essentials lesson this Sunday on the captioned topic (out of the old Gospel Principles manual). He normally teaches the class, but he simply had no idea how to approach this material, and so he punted to me. I was hesitant to do it, explaining that this is not exactly my favorite subject, but I finally caved, so I will be teaching the class come Sunday.

After reading the lesson in the manual, I reread my favorite sources on this topic, which both conveniently appear in the Journal of Mormon History 25/1 (Spring 1999): Armand L. Mauss, “In Search of Ephraim: Traditional Mormon Conceptions of Lineage and Race” and Arnold H. Green, “Gathering and Election: Israelite Descent and Universalism in Mormon Discourse.”

After a healthy dose of British Israelism and Anglo-Saxon Triumphalism, “believing blood,” physical purging of Gentile blood upon conversion, the overlay of the Preexistence, tribal hierarchies, the curse of Cain/Canaan, variant justifications for continued lineage assignments in Patriarchal Blessings, the “racialist residue” that continues in the Church yet today, Orson Pratt’s universalism and later modifications of his stance v. Brigham Young’s lineage primacy and later modifications of his stance; the early ascendancy of lineage primacy due to Brigham’s position and the later asendancy of universalism in the wake of the 1978 revelation and missionary success in many different areas of the world, et cetera et cetera, I pretty much had a headache.

I consider myself to be a universalist, and I don’t really understand what the role of Israelite descent is supposed to be beyond Paul’s spiritual take that the true Christian is of Israel.

I used to be a big believer in adoption, reasoning that it is unlikely that someone like me (7/8 British and 1/8 Danish) is really descended from Joseph of Egypt. So I figure I must have been adopted into that lineage. But now I have a different take. It seems to me that if Joseph had a posterity that continues yet today, then I almost certainly am indeed literally a descendant of Joseph, just as my PB says. But then, so is probably almost everyone on the planet. I’m also a descendant of Reuben and Simeon and every other tribe, too. Since they lived almost 4,000 years ago, the old Mormon idea that we can somehow distinguish tribal descent now strikes me as hopelessly naive. That’s just the way population dynamics work over so long a period of time. So while I am indeed descended of Joseph, so is everyone else, whether Gentile or not, so what really is the point to all of this?

Well, so much for my kvetching over the paradox between an understanding of the importance of tribal descent and more mainstream Christian universalism in Mormon thought.

My immediate problem is how to approach this lesson material. Here is my tentative plan: I will write on the board “The Gathering of Israel.” I will then say that the scriptures and we today use this expression in different senses, sometimes more literally and other times more allegorically, and so we need to understand the possibilities. To do this, first we must figure out what we mean by “Israel” and then figure out what we mean by various gatherings (and their predecessor scatterings).

So at this point I plan on taking a walking tour through sacred history, starting with Father Abraham, Jacob and his new covenant name, “Israel,” his Twelve sons, slavery in Egypt and redemption under Moses, Joshua and the settling of Palestine by tribal allotment, the substitution of Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh to make up for Levi’s presence among them all, the epic period of the Judges, the United Monarchy under Saul, David and Solomon, the revolt of the northern tribes under Rehoboam and the establishment of the divided kingdom, the Assyrian conquest and the “lost” tribes, the Babylonian captivity (and Lehite exodus) and return under Cyrus, the beginning of enmity with the Samaritans, Alexander the Great and then the Seleucid Kingdom and Jewish revolt, the conquest of Jerusalem in 63 BC by Pompey, the ministry of the Savior and birth of Christianity, another Jewish revolt and the Roman destruction of the temple in AD 70, the Diaspora with a capital “D,” the rise of Zionism in the 19th century, the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel in 1948, and conflict in the region ever since.

With all of this on the board and in mind, we will then examine different senses of the concept of Israel (personal, familial, tribal, a loose confederation of tribes, a united kingdom, a divided kingdom, a modern nation, a spiritual metaphor), and we will also examine various scatterings and various gatherings.

While these various things are possibilities when reading the scriptures, I will then express my view that when we in the church speak of the gathering of Israel in contemporary terms we are speaking metaphorically of missionary work, that it is not a question of race or physical lineage or geographic location, but simply of a willingness to believe and to enter into covenants and become a part of Christ’s church, thereby becoming a part of “Israel.”

I am open to other suggestions for how to approach this, and also rebuttals of the value of continued lineage primacy theology in the Church. How would you teach this lesson if you were assigned to do so?


  1. Yeah, go with the metaphor. The story of Israel as a symbol of our own covenant conversion. I will be sad, though, if you don’t get one or two comments about the Ten Tribes under the Arctic. It will be a sign that the Old Days are passing…

  2. Um, this sounds like way, way overkill for Gospel Essentials. Your target audience is brand new members and investigators, and they need to know the basic story of the Gospel as understood by those around them, as well as support and love in learning how to apply the principles of the Gospel to their lives.

    I would suggest following the basic outline of the material in the manual, and keep the other stuff in reserve if it seems appropriate as the conversation develops. It’s not that I think your stuff isn’t good, and might not even be useful to the new members or investigators you’ve got. It’s just that I’d be more apt to bring those things up with someone who asked questions that indicated that they were interested in taking these things that far, and only if the rest of the room indicated that they would be okay for the trip. I wouldn’t have any problem with saying that there is more to the story than the manual indicates, and that you are open to conversations about that if people are interested.

    If it wasn’t crystal clear, I’ve attended GE for most of the past six or seven years, with a variety of teachers in terms of viewpoint and quality. The best focussed on the needs and interest of the class members first, and followed the basic flow of the lesson material second. We’ve said many things in class that would make people in GD uncomfortable (I’ve talked about temples, plural marriage and the priesthood ban in new member lessons — I’m not averse to going deep with beginners when the interest is there).

    I just think you’re apt to get a lot of eye-glaze if you go with that much stuff in a 40 minute class of new members and investigators.

  3. You make a good point about all people having the blood of Israel. I think ultimately the gathering of Israel is about God keeping his covenants. Israel serves as a type of our salvation, taking upon his his mane, coming to Earth, making mistakes that separate us, being reconciled again through the Savior, and returning to live with him again as a fulfillment of the covenant. I think a lot of the other stuff you outline is additional noise that a new won’t add much to a new members understanding.

  4. I would keep it simple (esp. since it’s Gospel Essentials), maybe bringing in Elder Nelson’s talk from this last Conference, entitled “The Gathering of Scattered Israel.”

  5. Keeping it simple is important. Last week we had a lesson on Eternal Marriage in Gospel Essentials. I wasn’t there, but I heard it got out of control.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the comments and thoughts so far.

    What I describe in my outline is just a little bit more detailed and specific version of the first part of the lesson plan from the Gospel Principles manual, chapter 42, which begins with the following captions:

    The House of Israel Are God’s Covenant People

    The House of Israel Was Scattered

    The House of Israel Must Be Gathered

    Per your suggestions I’ll simplify my proposed outline and keep the greater detail in reserve if there is interest or questions (but I’ll still go into more explanatory detail than the manual does).

    What I was having a terrible time with was the last caption, “How Will the House of Israel Be Gathered?” which strikes me as an incoherent and hopeless muddle of the two strains of Mormon thought (lineage primacy v. universalism), so in lieu thereof as Ronan suggests I’m just going to go with Israel as metaphor and be done with it.

    This manual is from the 1970s. I’m willing to bet this lesson would be greatly rewritten (if not omitted entirely) if a new version were done today. I can sympathize with why my friend didn’t have the first clue how to approach this material and asked me to help him out.

    Yea, Ronan, I love the stories of explorers at the North Pole finding a green tree branch floating in the water, suggesting that the 10 Tribes are living up there inside the crust of the earth. They remind me of the Tarzan novel (I read the entire Edgar Rice Burroughs series of over 30 books as a boy) where Tarzan descends into Middle Earth, where the horizon goes up instead of down. I’ve got that traditional stuff rattling around in my head, and I’m trying to make sure I don’t let it spill out in front of the poor unsuspecting newbies.

  7. I think it’s totally fair game to point out wacky things that people have said in the past, because it is almost certain that somebody in your ward believes every one of those things, and your new folk are apt to run into those ideas at some point. If they know that those things are highly speculative and not official doctrine that you’ve withheld from them, things will tend to go better.

    As to the point that you’re not too keen on, in all likelihood, you can gloss over it in very general terms and that will be enough. They do need to understand what the Standard Model says so they are prepared for PH/RS/GD lessons that will discuss that model. But you can nuance their understanding of the Standard Model sufficiently as you go.

    Unless the instructor has slavishly stuck to the manual, it’s not at all uncommon for us to not get to the last part of the lesson, and I support not finishing the lesson if there are questions or comments that are good going by. It is a lot more important (IMO) that we keep the lessons relevant to the people attending than that we finish the lesson material, because the lesson isn’t going to go away, but the people might. If we keep them coming back, there will be time to get to the rest of the material.

  8. I taught Gospel Essentials for two and half years. Your job in that class is to teach basic Churuch concepts and help their transition in to the ward. Keep it clear,don’t talk down to them and love them. Read the manual, read the scriptures and teach by the Spirit.

  9. A) One of the Pratts (I think Parley) preached that the 10 Tribes are on an asteroid, an earth fragment that will reattach when the time is right. and boy, is the time right. I put tinfoil on my roof to keep our house safe if they dock near the Wasatch.
    B) Israelite lineage to me is about connecting back to God. There are many tracks to do it, but this is a valid one. Through a perceived or created lineage, we can trace ourselves, our physical and genetic beings, back to the holy ancestors, and thence to God. That is no small feat.
    C) I think the gathering can also be understood, particularly in the setting of the 10tribes legends, as like the unwitting hero stories, the discovery that we, as plain people, are actually powerful beyond or wildest imaginings. Think Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Clark Kent, who all partake of this heritage that is well-known in a variety of other cultures. That to me can be a dizzily emancipating insight. (This then can be a modified universalism–we all have this potential, but not all have yet uncovered it).
    D) gathering is also about Zion Society at some level, the story of gathering seems to teach that God wants us as communities, that we do not have a sufficient identity alone to enjoy salvation. This is a potent antidote to the rising tide of Western materialism and the ascendancy of the free market consumer culture.
    E) Someone give Ronan a filigreed gold ring and a cloak of invisibility. I think it’s time to gather him out of Baltimore.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    I was trying to figure out why the Gospel Principles manual said Israel means “prince of God.” The y at the beginning of the name Yisrael indicates that the first element in the name is verbal, not nominal, so to me the name originally meant something like “El prevails” (from the verb sarah to persist, exert oneself, preservere, contend, fight, prevail) and then the subject was switched around in the folk etymology when the name was assigned to Jacob after he had wrestled God at Penuel by the river Jabbok: “he who prevails with God.” Even the LDS Bible Dictionary s.v. “Israel” gives either “One who prevails with God” or “Let God prevail” (taking the verb as a jussive).

    [BTW, I was annoyed with Joseph Fielding Smith for so strongly claiming it wasn’t really God Jacob wrestled but an angel. God wrestling a man all night seems very Mormon to me.]

    In trying to discern the logic for “prince of God,” I came upon this message from Liz Fried of the University of Michigan at the b-hebrew archives (I get the b-hebrew list in digest form).

    I found it particularly interesting that she argued that the form Sarah is missing a theophoric element, and originally was probably Sariah “Yah rules.” LDS scholars have made exactly this argument re: BoM Sariah, but it was fun to see the same argument made in a completely non-LDS context.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    smb, I love your unwitting hero idea!

  12. Hm. I actually miss the days when we called con-Mormon gentiles. Sure I disagree with Brigham’s explanations of how siblings can have varying degrees of Israelite blood and that the missionaries need to gather those that have it from those who don’t. I also quite dislike the tendency for Mormons to equate the State of Isreal with the latter-day gathering (see here) (also, I appreciated Bonner Ritchie’s article in the Kennedy Center publication (pg. 10)).

    I heartily agree that if Jacob existed, just about all are related to him. I am currently reading Lost Legacy and like this quote (pg. 8 ):

    In bestowing a blessing, the Patriarch, if so inspired, may declare the specific tribe of Israel through which blessings will come. Mormons believe that it is “through the lineage of Abraham alone that the mighty blessings of the Lord for His children on earth are to be consummated.”19 This is directly related to the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 22:18 that “in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.” Although some early leaders believed the declaration of lineage was a statement of actual blood descendancy, it also has been taught that it does not matter whether this lineage is of blood or adoption.20 As Patriarch Eldred G. Smith explained, “Many of us are mixtures of several tribes of Israel, and so it is the right of the patriarch to declare that line through which the blessings of Israel shall come.”21

    19. John A. Widtsoe, “What Is the Meaning of Patriarchal Blessings?” Improvement Era 45 (January 1942)

    20. Apostle James L. Faust, in a speech given as recently as March 30, 1980, at Brigham Young University, offered comfort to those “who are not of the blood lineage of a specific tribe of Jacob.” He said that “no one need assume he or she will be denied blessings by reason of not being of the blood lineage of Israel.” He also spoke of being “spiritually begotten” through faith and quoted Joseph Smith as teaching that the Holy Ghost would “purge out the old blood;’ making one actually of the seed of Abraham. James L. Faust, “Patriarchal Blessings,” in Devotional Speeches (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1981), 53-57

    21 Eldred G. Smith, “Lectures on Theology: Last Message Series,” Address given at the Salt Lake Institute of Religion, April 30, 1971, 2, Eldred G. Smith Personal Records, Salt Lake City. Many Mormons, both leaders and rank and file, still believe there is a direct blood relationship.

  13. re 10, James Kugel (God of Old) has a very readable account of ideas about angels as facets or manifestations of God in the OT.

  14. Kevin, I think I’ll second Larry’s point (#8) that Gospel Essentials is pretty basic. I’d consider opening the lesson with the following statement: “In the 20th century, LDS prophets have interpreted the concept of the gathering of Israel to mean building up the Church wherever it is established.” Then talk about missionary work, a sort of gathering, and throw in five or ten minutes tying it all back to the ancient Israel stuff you cited in such impressive detail above.

  15. Thomas Parkin says:

    After having taken in the very basic information presented in the Gospel Principles manual, and reviewing a bit of my own understanding on the subject, I would spend some time this afternoon in the Temple and listen, as long as neccesary, for what the Lord wants me to teach on the subject.

    I’m teaching the very lesson tomorrow morning, and this is exactly what I’m doing. I aniticipate learning something on the subject myself, from this source.

    (If I get nothing, I’ll call in sick tomorrow and ask the missionaries to teach the lesson *wink*)


  16. Emphasize John 15 (the true vine) and Galatians 5.

  17. Aaron Brown says:


    Like you, Green’s and Mauss’ articles in JMHA are two of my all time faves! I would pay good money to come hear your lesson. Provided it was Steve’s money, of course.

    Aaron B

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Thomas Parkin, if you learn anything from your temple experience this afternoon, by all means please share.

  19. Kevin,
    One of the reasons Elder Nelson’s talk appealed to me on this topic is because the “how” of gathering is pretty simple, too. BoM helps with conversion and temple work helps with gathering on the other side. Good stuff. :) Good luck with your lesson.

  20. David Brosnahan says:

    Remember that the Bible is both literal and figurative. God says that he will “sprinkle many nations” with the blood of Abraham and then he will “gather many nations.” In the story of Joseph of Egypt; Ephraim was adopted as Jacob’s son, but he was also a blood relative (grandson). Also, if you talk to geneticist, they will agree that every human living likely has some of Abraham’s genes. So, I think we likely all trace some heritage back to Abraham and when we accept the true gospel of Jesus Christ, we are adopted in as a son and daugter of Christ in a covenant relationship with every right and blessing.

  21. David Brosnahan says:

    On the literal side, I think there exist many ethnic minority groups around the world with a more direct 10 tribe heratage. Here are a few links on the subect:

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    m&m, if I am reading him correctly, Elder Nelson takes a universalist approach to the gathering, meaning that one is “gathered” by missionary work and making covenants to come unto Christ. That is position I too favor.

  23. OK, I’ll believe you. I’ve never been good at keeping labels straight, like what a “universalist” approach is. :)

  24. 8. Larry’s advice is good for any class. Clear, with respect and love, and following the spirit. During my high council term, I found that I made progress in preparing a talk only when I put aside my own will and became willing to follow the spirit of God wherever it led. Some of my own “brilliant ideas” flowed into those talks in very useful ways, but some just faded from my mind as unimportant.

    A teacher preparing a lesson or a talk has a unique experience with the lesson material. That experience cannot be transferred to the class. At most, the teacher can testify of it. Only if a class member likewise delves into the material and into the spirit will he or she share that experience. A teacher may motive that kind of personal searching, but cannot replace it.

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    I just returned from church, and I thought I would let you know that my lesson was a great success. The new members themselves contributed to the discussion, and several of them thanked me profusely afterwards.

    I tend to way overprepare lessons. It gives me a sense of confidence and ease with the material, even if we only touch on a tenth of what I have prepared, and so that usually works out well for me.

    At one point one of the established members who was attending the class asked a “British Israelism” type question, which I was able to deflect quickly since I had learned about it and the church’s one-time infatuation with it. And towards the end, there were some comments on the political situation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that could have spun out of control, but which I was able to deflect. But those were the only speed bumps along the way; overall, it went swimmingly.

    Thank you all for your thoughtful suggestions on how to approach the material. I greatly appreciate your input.

    (And feel free to continue to discuss the substance of the topic; I just wanted to report how the lesson went.)

  26. I’m glad the class went well. I was lined up to teach the PH lesson, based on Pres. Hinckley’s Sunday Morning talk from the latest conference, but we got snowed in — about 9″ of accumulation, which, around here, means lots of things shut down.

    I will let people know that the role of genealogy in the Church has changed over the years. Initially, it was about linking into certain preferred blood-lines, then it became about temple work, and, for a time, it was to see if there were any black ancestors for priesthood purposes (not sure how the names on the page indicated skin color, and glad I didn’t have to work with those kind of questions).

    I will discuss the fake genealogies of the royals and nobles of Europe, and I might even discuss the legends about Jesus being married, and his family being taken after his ressurection to England by Joseph of Arimathea. I let everybody know that these are all highly speculative and far from official Church doctrine, but that they raise questions that are interesting to think about.

    I think it’s good for folks to know that there is more to the story than what’s in the manual, but it’s also good for them to understand that those other things aren’t likely to be essential, so as to reduce Gospel Hobbyism.

  27. #26. (smile) I hope.

  28. Thomas Parkin says:


    Glad everything went well. It usually does, after all, eh? :)

    I didn’t get to the temple- as one of the investigators in my class was baptized yesterday. I’d nearly forgotten – a voice mail from the elders brought to mind in time to attend.

    I had determined to concentrate on the idea that the Church is spritual Israel, and that by covenant making, following Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc., we are adopted into Israel whatever our blood may or not be. That went well enough. But an older member of the ward and I then began reminiscing on the fact that this was once a much more discussed subject; which reminiscing lead to talk of “other sheep” and coming down from the “north countries” etc. I had thought I’d feel uncomfortable if these kind of ideas came up, at least in part because I feel personally awkward with them – but was pleasantly surprised to find our new converts – we have two currently in class – excited, interested and involved in these turns. There was an excellent Spirit present as we discussed these ideas. Hwta my older friend emphasized is that the scriptures – all of them – are full of these ideas amd that we can’t wish them away.

    I finally don’t know what to take figuratively and what literally. I note that it is often much _easier_ to find a thing only symbolic and move towards mysticism and an amphorous universalism (God Himself a being without body, parts or passions) than to accept that symbols point to a world of concrete realities which are to be understood as well as ideas. I’ve long beleived this tendancy is the beginning of the end of Mormonism and an indication of apostacy. On the other hand, literalism fails to encompass spiritual dimension and is therefore itself a distortion, and seems to go hand in hand with fundamentalism and, frankly, an even more unpleasant kind of nut jobbery.

    I personally need to know a lot more about this subject.


  29. Maybe Thomas Parkin has already said it better, but perhaps one benefit of retaining some feeling for a literal gathering is that it places God at the head of the human family. If the gathering is metaphorical only then in no time flat our familial connection with God becomes merely symbolic.

  30. Hi, Kevin:

    As you correctly note, genetic principles dictate almost inevitably that almost everyone in the world has at least SOME Israelite lineage. In most cases, as you also seem to assent, the percentage of Israelite ancestry is undoubtedly very, very small. I view “British Israelitism” theories as nonsensical, or at least, as extremely overblown.

    The primary sense of the gathering of Israel is indeed spiritual. One sees this in the Doctrine in Covenants where the Lord states that the rebellious are not of the blood of Ephraim (D&C 64:36). Of course this wouldn’t make sense from a strict genetic standpoint. Those who keep the commandments are of “Israel,” and those who do not are not, in a spiritual sense.

    At the same time, in my research over the past few years I have found the consistency of lineages cited in patriarchal blessings to be remarkable. In particular, certain tribal lineages show up repeatedly among members of certain ethnic groups or heritages, and rarely or virtually never among some others. This trend is maintained even when patriarchal blessings are given by patriarchs in widely different parts of the world to individuals from a common cultural background. This leads me to believe that although at least in most cases the lineage involved is likely fractional, the declaration of lineage is not arbitrarily contrived, nor is it merely an outdated remnant of now-discredited “Israelitism,” but rather represents real inspiration. Those who undertake a serious study of the correlation between tribal lineage and heritage will see what I mean.

    I don’t think that the lineage point is really terribly important. The important sense of the doctrine of gathering of Israel is, above all else, spiritual. But I don’t think that lineage declarations should be completely dismissed out of hand as lacking any meaning or relevance to heredity. This is certainly a topic that requires continued data gathering and study.

    Best wishes,


%d bloggers like this: