Presiding Patriarch

Tomorrow Eldred G. Smith turns 100 years old. He is an anachronism incarnate. Few Mormons realize that there was such a thing Presiding Patriarch and that in 1979 President Kimball removed Patriarch Smith from his office and left it empty. The office remains empty to this day and while we honor Hyrum the martyr, his ecclesiastical legacy is now solidly history.

I recently finished reading Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch, a book which I would commend to any person interested in our history. It is a penetrating history of the office and group biography of those who held it.

As much as I am a meritocrat, I find myself deeply supportive of the patriarchate. Perhaps it is because I associate the patriarchate with everything else Joseph established and with those aspects of our early religion that we have forgotten. That is not to say that I don’t believe the Church President has the authority to make the changes that he has (because I do), but as I share a deep affinity for our progenitors, I consequently inherit nostalgia of their beliefs and practices.

The office of Presiding Patriarch was problematic to the Church hierarchy after the death of Hyrum. William, brother of the prophet (or crazy uncle William as I understand the reorganites used to call him), made a play for primacy and engaged in activities that were not approved by the governing council of the Twelve. William was removed from the office and forever tainted the prospects of the Patriarchate.

Great men filled the office after William. Joseph’s unlce John was a deeply religious and humble man who, after presiding in the first Stake of Utah, ascended to be Patriarch. John, the Martyr’s son and subsequent Patriarch, was the individual who set Joseph F. Smith apart as President of the Church. The patriarch was sustained as a Prophet, Seer and Revelator and for many years was sustained before the Twelve in general conference.

Heber J. Grant, who had a new vision of the Church, wrestled with the office, but George Albert Smith, a co-relation, finally installed Eldred as Patriarch. While his duties as a General Authority had been curtailed, he served faithfully until the day he was asked to forsake his office. After stepping down, the church let him retain his office-space, which, to this day, serves as a holy room to bestow blessings on any who seek them.

At 100 years old, if he would have kept his office, he would have been the longest serving general authority in the Church. As it stands now, he is a noble and faithful witness to the restoration and monument to the charisma of his office. God bless the Patriarch.


  1. I should add that Peggy had a nice write up for the Trib, and the the Deseret News had a note about an open house tomorrow.

  2. fascinating. I wasn’t aware he was still alive. I hate to sound like a religio-tourist, but it would be something special to receive a blessing from him.

  3. What did the PP do that a SP didn’t?

  4. My wife received her patriarchal blessing from Eldred. He is her great uncle. When he was made an emeritus general authority he retained an office and the right to continue giving patriarchal blessings. It realy is a beautiful blessing.I couldn’t help but feel a little sad, and I must admit even a little bothered when I read Lost Legacy and read not only of his experience when he was made emeritus, but also the pain he experienced when he was next in line for the calling and was initiall “passed over” for another candidate.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I never read Lost Legacy, but it’s in my “someday” file. But I enjoyed Peggy’s recent article.

    My understanding, Ronan, is that the PP can give a blessing to anyone in the Church, whereas a SP is limited to his jurisdiction. (The PP also oversaw the SPs.) It is also my understanding that Eldred is still actively giving blessings, so anyone who wants a connection to church history ought to get their teenage child to the Joseph Smith Building pronto while he is still alive.

    Did you see the dedication of the Palmyra temple? I thought it was great that GBH brought Eldred and his wife, chatting with him on camera. That was a nice touch. GBH has more of an historical sense of the Church than most GAs do.

  6. Ronan, depending on when, they managed Stake Patriarchs, and, if I remember, their selection. They had the sealing power and were general authorities. They met at the weekly meeting with the Twelve and the First Presidency. They spoke at General Conference.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m old enough to remember when Eldred’s picture would be in the Ensign centerfold of the conference issues. While everyone else was grouped by quorum, Eldred was in a little box off to the side, I want to say near the pictures of the apostles. I don’t think has pdf’s of issues that far back, so someone will have to check a print issue to see if my memory is correct.

  8. It’s funny, I too prefer meritocracy and am uncomfortable with some kind of hereditary position in a worldwide faith…but then again, I’m a staunch monarchist. Also, I find the kohanim pretty cool.

    Speaking of which, has a Cohen ever joined the church and demanded to be a Bishop? Seems like they would have the right. Surely someone has looked at this!

  9. Useless trivia: what do Mr. Spock and Numbers 6:23-27 have in common?

    (Feel free to ignore my derailment. Sorry Jonathan.)

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Ronan #8, the answer is “no,” (AFAIK), I suspect because the kohanim are simply too smart to demand to be a bishop–without counselors at that!

  11. Kevin #7–You do remember correctly. I looked in my old hard copies of the Ensign–the earliest one that had the GA Centerfold was May 1977. Eldred is pictured to the side of the Council of the Twelve in his own little box labeled “Patriarch to the Church.”

  12. Hey JS

    Nice post. Do you think that there would be any interest in reviving the office? Maybe to manage all the Stake patriarchs?

    I have heard rumors of Cohens wanting to be bishops per the D&C but never heard of a actual case with reliable people telling the story. Who the heck would want to be bishop?

  13. Another question.

    How and by who does a current Stake patriarch get called?

  14. “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church” OR DO WE?

  15. bbell, within the last ten years, Stake presidents were allowed to call and set apart Stake Patriarchs. Before that it was a general authority matter. The general consensus is that in the latter 20th century, the Twelve did not like the idea of having stake patriarchs managed outside of their auspices.

  16. Harold B. Lee once said that people would be surprised how many literal descendants approach church leaders to announce their desire to become the Presiding Bishop. He also told a story of a farm boy who came to him one day announcing that he was a literal descendant of Aaron and that he was claiming his right to be the Presiding Bishop. Lee told the farm boy that he had failed to understand D&C 68:20 and that if he was truly a literal descendant, he should return home to wait until the church president called him and ordained him.

  17. My Wife’s GrandFather was called as a Patriarch in 1977 by Spencer W. Kimball. He has the certificate hanging on his wall in his office. It is really cool.

  18. Greg Prince has added a bit to the discussion in his Power From On High, which is worth reading. It’s fascinating to me to hear about Hyrum’s legacy, when the Patriarchate, first assumed by Joseph Smith Jr, was held first and foremost by Joseph Smith Sr, Father Israel, who possessed it until, on his deathbed, he turned the priesthood over to his oldest living son.

    I see the patriarchate, on the basis of the way the office operated in its first 2 generations, as a way of adopting people into Joseph Smith’s family. By receiving a patriarch’s blessing (this was initially quite self-consciously modeled on Jacob’s deathbed blessing), early Saints were being welcomed into Father Smith’s family, just as they were being genealogically engrafted into the people of Israel.

    One wonders whether part of the reason for letting Father Eldred Smith go was the obvious waning relevance of the Reorganization. In a sense the Presiding Patriarch remained a potent response to the RLDS cousins of the church authorities who continually rubbed salt in the wounds of the church who had lost its lineal heirs.

    One could also reasonably believe that this was a proclamation of the new era of the Church, when the embrace of the LDS would be the entire world. The patrilineal model of the domestic church may have seemed no longer appropriate.

    re: 14, could we raise the bar a little on discussions?

  19. Last Lemming says:

    With regard to kohanim, why could one not simply be ordained to the office of bishop, but not bishop of a particular congregation. His status would be indistinguishable from that of a former bishop who retains the office, but not the responsibility.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    Of course, given our modern understanding of population dynamics, we are all literal descendants of Aaron.

    Maybe the promise only applies to pure patrilineal descent. But in that case, query whether simply possessing the surname Cohen is adequate proof of such descent.

    Sam, I think you’re right about the waning importance of fighting it out with the Reorganization and the growing primacy of universalism over lineage descent in Mormon thought.

  21. Re: callings of stake patriarchs. At least as far back as 1986, stake presidents have been delegated authority to call, ordain and set apart patriarchs (after approval by the Brethren, similar to the approval for calling bishops). I know this because that is the way a brother in our ward was called, ordained and set apart in 1986, the way my father was called, ordained and set apart a year or so later, and the way a brother in our current stake was called, ordained, and set apart two months ago.

    This delegation, I believe, was in connection with the continuing reduction in the frequency with which the Brethren visited stake conferences.

  22. #9

    Useless trivia: what do Mr. Spock and Numbers 6:23-27 have in common?

    I’ll bite just because I came across it when I looked for Kohanin on Wikipedia to figure out what you guys were talking about.

    From Wikipedia

    The positioning of the kohen’s hands during the Priestly Blessing was Leonard Nimoy’s inspiration for Mr. Spock’s Vulcan salute in the original Star Trek television series. Nimoy, raised an orthodox Jew (but not a kohen), used the salute when saying “live long and prosper.”

    Furthermore, the Star Trek Symbol is the same shape as the negative (air) space created between the Kohein’s thumbs and forefingers, which some Kohanim touch while doing the Birchas Kohanim (Priestly Blessing). (There is some dispute as to whether or not to touch thumb to thumb and forefinger to forefinger while doing the blessing.)

    And I’m not even a Trekkie!

  23. Spencer, they prefer to be called “Trekkers.” And I’m not even among their number myself. But as a chess player and ham radio operator, I recognize that we dorks have to watch each others’ backs.

  24. Steve Evans says:

    GST, trivia question no. 2: what do Abraham 3 and Babylon 5 have in common?

  25. Look, I may be a nerd, Evans, but I draw the line long before “Babylon 5.”

  26. Lonny Mower says:

    Eldred Smith gave me my patriarchal blessing. My Stake Patriarch had passed away, and I was soon to leave on a mission. What else to do in such a limited time? Call down to the COB and get an appointment with Brother Smith. That’s right, I lived in Salt Lake. (Russell Nelson was my StakePres) There were only 2 million members of this church as this time, so it was still possible to get in somewhat pronto. His office was in the Big Boys’ Building on South Temple, not the one on North Temple. He even had a secretary with her own office, which was connected to his. His office, and that of his secretary were magnificently decorated, and the floor to ceiling burgundy paneling (mahogany/cherry/?) suggested grandeur and formality. I remember waiting in her office before being called into his. I visited with him and had a chance to ask all sorts of questions. I recall asking him how dinosaurs fit into the Creation story. There were elongated pauses in his blessing, as he was awaiting further inspiration. During this time, he would take his foot off the “record” pedal, saving as much of the recording tape as possible. I knew he was ready to proceed further with the blessing when I heard his foot press the record pedal just before speaking.

  27. Lonny, thanks for that wonderful anecdote.

  28. Re comment 15:

    Stake presidents have been extending calls to patriarchs since at least 1985. The recommendation is sent to the Quorum of the Twelve, and, upon their approval, the stake president is authorized to ordain and set apart the patriarch.

    I don’t know how many years prior to that the change was made, but it was part of a substantial devolution of authority to stake presidents. (For example, when my father was ordained and set apart as a bishop in early 1965, the ordinance was performed by Howard W. Hunter.) But sometime after that, and before 1984, stake presidents were given that responsibility.

  29. Sorry for duplicating DavidH’s comment–I hadn’t read down the whole list before I got to it.

    And, re: gst’s first comment: is he old enough to have been a “Trekker”? Some of us are. Back in the good old days, when Primary was on Wednesday afternoon, the three boys classes (for 9, 10 and 11 year olds) were Blazers, Trekkers and the Guide Patrol. And we got that nice blue wheel on our bandlo when we completed the requirements of the Trekker class.

    Back when Primary was cool.

  30. RE comment 26:
    I love this story,especially the part about his pauses as he waited for inspiration, but I just have to know–What did
    he tell you about how dinosaurs fit into Creation???

  31. GST, trivia question no. 2: what do Abraham 3 and Babylon 5 have in common?

    Ok..I’ll bite on this one. I’m a Babylon 5 fan. I read Abraham 3, and aside from looking like it could have been written by a Vorlon, I couldn’t tell what you were getting at.

  32. To complete the Vulcan trivia… Spock’s salute and the Priestly “sign” equate to the letter shin in Hebrew, the first letter of one of the divine names, ha-shem.

    I am not a Trekkie. Can’t stand the show.

  33. So what’s the deal with Eldred Smith not wanting to accept the 1978 Revelation on the priesthood? Is this the reason for his “release” from church-wide duties? Haven’t read the book–I assume it’s discussed in there. Just wondering if anyone has the straight dope.

  34. Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry under Eldred G. Smith is a mess. Someone really should clean it up.

  35. Steven Heath’s article in Dialogue on Apostolic Succession has an interesting discussion of the PP during Joseph F. Smith’s presidency. Something not really discussed there, but covered in Mormonism in Transition, is that the PP also thought he ought to succeed Joseph F. Smith as church president, but the Twelve and First Presidency disagreed. An interesting letter written by Wilford Woodruff to Heber J. Grant years before (and quoted in the Heath article) played an important role in settling the issue.

  36. Keri, the answer to my question cannot be revealed to the world, but may be had in the temple. Review your facsimiles and fax a copy of Facsimile no. 2 to J. Michael Straczynski.

  37. Re comments 21 and 28: the operative date seems to be February 27, 1981.

  38. Thanks Justin, et al. I was obviously confusing the change with something else.

    Stref, Lost Legacy does not treat the subject of the 1978 revelation. At this point, as his beliefs are not on public record, I believe it is wise to not speculate how he thought.

    Jared*, if I remember correctly, Bates and Smith show that he didn’t want to be the successor to the presidency, but that he believed there was a case that he would be the interim presiding authority until the first presidency was reorganized.

  39. J., I’m curious if you saw the letter responding to Stack’s article and what you make of it.

    It’s here/a>.

  40. Justin:

    Who names their kid Thomas Thompson? Seriously, that’s worse than a superhero name.

    The Quips all sound very Quinn to me. I believe the hierachy books are where I’ve seen these ideas before.

  41. Interesting letter, Justin. I disagree with his characterization of Peggy’s article. Sure some of the things that he brings up are true (though absent any sort of context and explicated with an aggravating intent, it would seem), but if people want the unabridged story, then read the book (or theses and papers).

  42. Last Lemming says:

    Who names their kid Thomas Thompson?

    More people that you might think. Coming soon to a presidential campaign near you?

  43. Kevin Barney says:

    FWIW I agree with J.’s disagreement with the characterization of Peggy’s fine article.

  44. I looked at Quinn’s discussion in Extensions of Power. It does seem to be the writer’s source.

  45. Lonny Mower says:

    To NancyH, #30.

    My blessing by Brother Smith was in the days before zip codes, and I’m trying to piece together what I can from the ancient memory electrons in my CPU. So, rather than provide an incomplete answer now, give me a few days to get things straight. Where’s my jazzy-chair?

  46. You do come up with the coolest things Stapley.

  47. A side note: both the Tribune and this post refer to the office as “Presiding Patriarch.” I don’t recall Bro. Smith ever being referred to as the “Presiding Patriarch”. I think he was referred to (and sustained) as “Patriarch to the Church.”

  48. Mark B., that is correct that Eldred Smith did not go by the title of “Presiding Patriarch.” Part of the Geber J. Grant reformation was to stop using it.

  49. cut s dean says:

    I was on a mission in 1979 and Eldred G. Smith toured the mission that year. A member that my companion and I respected and liked, and I think the feeling may have been mutual, was the husband of a close relative to Patriarch Smith. This couple invited us to dinner at their house one night with Patriarch Smith, just the five of us.

    During the dinner Patriarch Smith mentioned the sixteen men sustained as prophets, seers and revelators. I did the math in my head and counted 15 (the 12 and the three). I told him that I only counted sixteen. He looked me in the eye, gently and fatherly, and said, gently and fatherly, “I am also sustained as a prophet, seer and revelator and indeed that is what I am.” With a short pause, he asked if I could, please, pass the mashed potatoes.

    He seemed a lovely man.

  50. E. Gary Smith says:

    This is my first visit to this site, but would like to make a comment about Peggy’s fine article on Patriarch Eldred G. Smith. I am his oldest son, and co-author of Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch. First, as to the original comment, John, the son of Hyrum, was not the son of “Uncle John” the uncle of Hyrum Smith. John, the son of Hyrum, was only 12 when his father was killed, so “Uncle” John was placed in the office. When he died, “Young” John, Hyrum’s oldest son, was ordained by Brigham Young. Another point: I know personally that Eldred welcomed the revelation on the Priesthood, so rumors to the contrary are completey false. It is true that Eldred was never sustained as Presiding Patriarch, but rather as Patriarch to the Church. However, his father, Hyrum Gibbs Smith, was sustained as Presiding Patriarch, and did, indeed, supervise, instruct, and preside over the stake patriarchs in a quorum of Patriarchs. Only recently have the patriarchs ceased voting as a quorum during the solemn assembly that sustains a new President to the Church. I am pleased to hear the comments and stories about contact with my father. Of course I am prejudiced, but I think he is the best.
    Gary Smith

  51. Gary, thank you for your comment with its clarifications and interesting details. I have corrected the original post’s hasty mistake.

    Your book is one of the finest works in the Mormon History corpus.

  52. Sweet. Unbeknownst to me, I recieved my patriarchal blessing on Brother Smith’s hundredth birthday.

    Coincidence? I think not.

  53. E. Gary Smith says:

    Intersting coincidene (#52). In fact, on his 100th birthday Eldred drove (by himself, of course) to the temple to act as a sealer all morning, then walked to his office and gave 2 patriarchal blessings, then at 4 he and his wife met with the First Presidency, and then he stood for 3 1/2 hours receiving well-wishers at the reception held in his honor. In the evening he admitted to being a little tired, but I think less worn out than I was.

  54. Gary, excellent book. Thanks much.

  55. Did anyone see the article celebrating his 100th birthday in Deseret News? The statement printed by the first presidency used only the past tense to descibe Eldred Smith’s contributions to the church. I thought it was odd to have so specifically used the past tense, as if giving a eulogy instead of a birthday speech (where one would use the present tense as well). It tends to give creedence to Kevin and Sam’s comments about the changes in mormon thought.

    Also, I wonder if Eldred Smith is still giving firesides and sharing some of the family heirlooms from Hyrum Smith. I wish someone would tape that–wouldn’t it be a precious thing to capture? After reading this post and corresponding news articles, I’ve been asking members what they remember and know of him, and the overwhelming response is that his general conference talks are par excellence. I can’t wait to read them.

    I’ve heard that Elder Ballard is also a descendant of Hyrum. Does anyone know the relation?

  56. I just finished the book as well. I had never heard of patriarchal blessings for the dead! My father died recently without ever receiving his patriarchal blessing. Do you think I could get one for him now? I could really use it!

  57. Joanne, I seriously doubt that you could get one today.

  58. Ha. Of course. Seems to be one of those practices that came and went quickly back in the day. I was just missing my dad and looking for comfort in unusual places! Thanks for bringing this book to our attention. You are my favorite BCC author. :)

  59. Thank you.

  60. spencer bingham says:

    I’m popping into this site I asked the question about the book at I called a local bookstore it’s out of print and deseret book said so too. Maybe get it through sam weller that sales out of print books.

    I had to wait 6 weeks to get my patriarchal blessing from stake patriarch. He fasts before every one. Elder Smith must give several a week though.

    I think they got rid of the office because didn’t know who would be eligible, family authority and what he could do. On the cd version of lenghten your stride Ed Kimball mentions conversations with Eldred and GAry and says that’s the best thing they did.

    Since you can get your blessing through stake patriarch and if stake at present don’t have one or you live in district can get one from neighboring stake. Won’t be deprived that way.

    M russell Ballard’s mother is a daughter of Hyrum Mack Smith and they wondered if people like him would be eligible for the office.

    I wrote the orignial wikipedia entry on Eldred G SMith. It’s been cleaned up. I ommited the part of his feeling of priesthood revelation. Put back in there though. Maybe a citation of quote could be in there though.

  61. Spencer, please re-read the comments. The author of Lost Legacy confirmed that Elrded Smith did not regret OD2, but in fact supported it. Some of your other details are a but fuzzy as well. You can purchase the book used on or through froogle, and I heartily recommend it, especially before releasing such information.

  62. spencer bingham says: says it’s not out or print I can’t wait tell Weller calls and says it’s availabe. I didn’t write the original article of his supposed opposition to od2. Someone else put that in there. When I deleted that part it got put back in. Maybe I should log in and try to delete that part again.

  63. spencer bingham says:

    For official decleration two is there any authentic statement that Elder Smith didn’t agree with the changes? Why I said that is someone put that in at wikipedia who said he studied general authorities. Someone else took it out and said not to publish unsubstantiated rumors. Why it’s there and been taken out is in the discussion section on the patriarch.

    When I wrote that article I only wrote on what i knew and got information from the ensign and mostly from Ed Kimballs lenghten your stride including the cd version.

    he accepted the changes but didn’t like them I read on cd of lengthen your stride. I never knew anything on his feelings of official decleration 2 when I first wrote that article. Actually rumors and Wikipedia has a policy against rumors.

    Don’t think he liked the demise but what I read from conversation between Gary SMith and Ed Kimball a courageous step to avoid the problems it caused by who should get it? What was there title? Must it go to oldest worthy son? WHy didn’t he go to Stake Conferences and on and on. Why good thing to abandon office. And a blessing from a stake patriarch is just as valid as from church patriarch too.

    My mom remembers GAry Smith as her gospel doctrine teacher in Santa Monica. IF he pops in does he know Tom and Ada Lee my grandparents. They moved out of California 30 years ago.

    Does anyone besides me who read these comments have a wikipedia account? YOu used to be able to write articles annonymously know you need an account and password. You can still edit there though. INteresting discussion on article there.

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