Divergent Tribes

A bit ago Kevin fielded a question from the BCC inbox relating to the meaning of tribal assignments in Patriarchal Blessings. I liked his response. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend a couple of years ago. We went out for some overpriced burgers and chatted about his declared lineage to one of the more uncommon tribes. I’d certainly never met anyone who professed a similar assignment. He wondered what I thought it might mean.

First, I think Samuel Brown’s article on early Mormon adoption theology is really important here. He talks about how Patriarchs, particularly those early archetypes, reified Mormonism’s particular and emphatic conceptions of Christian adoption through their blessings. It is difficult to summarize pp. 20-32 of Sam’s piece concisely, so I encourage you to read them. Patriarchal blessings declared incorporation into the family of God (a bona fide Christian concept of the time), when the call of the gospel often tore earthly families asunder. Sam spends his time in early Mormonism, but it wasn’t uncommon into the 20th century to receive a blessing that only declared ones lineage as a child of Abraham. Abraham’s seed, indeed.

Ideas of lineage, especially as relating to priesthood, ramped up dramatically in Nauvoo, shortly after Joseph Smith died, and the associated cosmologies structured the lives of Saints in really interesting ways. Brigham Young declared, for example, that the priesthood required descent from Ephraim (check out my article in the same issue as Sam’s above). However most of those ideas were quickly forgotten, and Saints were left to craft their own narratives to explain their tribal assignments.

Now, I have to confess that I generally believe that the mythology of the Lost Tribes is interesting, but lacking in religious heft. Check out Benite’s volume for a brief overview. Moreover, as Kevin points out, genetically we are all comparably descendants of all the tribes. That said, even though we are left to figure out what the heck this now integral feature of our prophetic blessings mean, I really do believe that it has meaning.

After going through a bit of this with my friend over my calorie dense, and only reasonably satisfying burger, I looked in his eyes and confessed that I honestly didn’t know why he got the assignment he did, nor did I have any proper answer to his question. It is true that Stake Presidents are supposed to check through the output of Patriarchs now and again and if too many exotic tribes pop up, they are supposed to reel them in. Still, like my friend, I am willing to believe that his particular assignment was inspired and I did tell him what I thought his assignment possibly could mean: namely, that he had the opportunity to reflect on being different. Perhaps God wanted him to consider what it means to be outside the norm and use the ensuing empathy to minister to those who don’t often find their tribes on Sundays.


  1. Jason K. says:

    That last sentence! Thanks, J.

  2. That last sentence is killer.

    Maybe patriarchs get bored?

  3. Very nice, J.: looking for the spiritual truth behind the practice.

  4. “It is true that Stake Presidents are supposed to check through the output of Patriarchs now and again and if too many exotic tribes pop up, they are supposed to reel them in.”

    That’s a more detailed bit of instruction than I have ever seen. Yes, stake presidents are supposed to review patriarchal blessings from time to time, but I don’t remember any more detailed instruction about what they were to look for, or what they should do to fix things.

  5. eponymous says:

    I love the idea of Patriarchs getting bored Steve. And I thoroughly agree with J’s framework.

  6. eponymous says:

    Mark, there is specific instruction that only a Patriarch and a Stake President would be familiar with. I cannot say whether J’s statement is aligned with with that booklet but I believe from the discussions I’ve had with my father that it is. President Packer’s talk in General Conference from 2002 refers to that small booklet and the spirit of that instruction:


  7. I love your conclusion, J. And the details about your burger…a good reminder to seek out that which is wholesome and beautiful.

  8. My M-in-law served as typist for her husband patriarch. She was told by the SP to keep an eye out for “anything crazy”. It was left at that.

  9. When John A. Widtsoe was European mission president (1928-1933), he very much wanted to have a patriarch come to the mission, as part of his effort to establish the branches in Europe as full fledged units of the Church, providing all the services and opportunities that were available in the western US. He eventually got one, but it took quite a while for Heber J. Grant to overcome his wariness at sending a patriarch so far away from the stakes. I haven’t seen any specific statement of which patriarchs or which promises he had in mind, but he was concerned about the weirdness of some things that some patriarchs were wont to promise, and he wanted to send only someone utterly grounded and trustworthy. In that context, there’s an extra measure of trust and respect for the man he eventually did send (James H. Wallis of Vernal, Utah, a local Church leader, newspaperman, and writer of the hymn “Come, Ye Children of the Lord”). Even so, Bro. Wallis was restricted to the British Mission and not allowed to travel and bless on the continent.

  10. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks Ardis, that is really interesting.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    Mark, I think that’s always been the case. My mom when she was a young girl ended up getting several (I think 3) patriarchal blessings due to concerns about the patriarch becoming senile. I need to ask her but I think it came about due to the Stake President reviewing the blessings. Interestingly she told me the new ones were substantially the same.

  12. If a Patriarchal Blessing is supposed to be inspired, why should anyone be concerned by anything “weird?” I had mine back in 1954 from Eldred G. Smith. I had come to Salt Lake City with my parents and brother to be sealed together in the temple. Brother Smith visited with us for quite some time before giving us our very nice (not weird at all) blessings.

  13. Sharee, at one time it wasn’t at all rare for patriarchs to give what can only be described as apocalyptic blessings — not just that someone would live to see the second coming, but that he would do such-and-such specific actions in a war against some identified nation, or would die on the march to Missouri and be resurrected after rotting for three days, or whatever. More fortune telling than blessing. Weird.

  14. Clark Goble says:

    Ardis it was common even at my age (now in my 40’s). Quite a few companions had apocalyptic paragraphs in their blessings and several said they’d see the second coming. I was a bit skeptical of such things, although it is possible. (And of course, as Joseph noted with the famous prophesy he gave of his 85th birthday, you could see such things while dead)