Patriarchal Blessings, Race, and Lineage: History and a Survey

Joseph Stuart is a graduate student in the History department of the University of Utah. We’re grateful for his thoughts.

Today marks the thirty-ninth anniversary of the release of Official Declaration 2, the statement most recently canonized by the LDS Church. The 1978 Declaration made it possible for all people of African descent, male and female, to participate in LDS temple liturgy, including the endowment and the sealing ordinance. The statement, now as accepted as revelation in the LDS Church, also made it possible for men of African descent to hold ecclesiastical priesthood office. I applaud the LDS Church’s scripture and am grateful that it has been included in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants. Teaching its historical context from the point of view of President Kimball and from African-descended members is one of my favorite Sunday School lessons of the year.

However, discrimination against peoples of African descent has not disappeared from modern Mormonism.  In a previous post at Juvenile Instructor, I explored the ways in which race has been espoused by LDS leaders and average Latter-day Saints alike, and how the vestiges of those teachings remain in modern Latter-day Saint teachings. In today’s post, I’d like to explore the ways in which patriarchal blessings continue to identify Latter-day Saints by race, and, in some instances, place people of African descent as separate than “white” Mormons. Zandra of Sistas in Zion has stated that her patriarchal blessing does not declare an Israelite lineage. I do not claim that this is a widespread practice, but I think it is important to find out if African-descended folks are having their lineage declared in modern Mormonism, or if the practice has slowly disappeared.  A link to an anonymous survey can be found at the bottom of this post.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a “patriarchal blessing” is a blessing bestowed by an ordained patriarch (in the vein of Old Testament patriarchs like Abraham), which dispenses direction and advice to the receiver. The blessing also declares the blood lineage of the receiver in relation to his or her connection to the House of Israel.[ii] Smith’s own theology was generally universalist, meaning that he did not preclude any person from obtaining salvation, regardless of racial background. In the New Testament, John the Baptist preached to the Pharisees and Sadducees that their Abrahamic lineage did not elevate their relationship or access to God. Indeed, John the Baptist informed the Jews, “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”[iii] Joseph Smith similarly believed that Abrahamic lineage did not matter in relation to salvation or divine favor. God could raise up anyone, including Africans, as “children of Abraham,” so far as they converted to Mormonism and accepted its principles and ordinances.

Joseph Smith and his successor’s teachings made a connection between the willingness to accept the Mormon gospel and a religio-racial heritage within the Abrahamic covenant. Being declared a member of the House of Israel placed one within what historian Samuel Brown has called a “sacerdotal family,” a kinship network wherein the human family was connected together through relationships rooted in blessings promised in Mormon temple liturgy. [iv] In other words, Joseph Smith and his successors preached the importance of creating a religious body that had family or kinship networks cemented through ordinances like the sealing ritual. Patriarchal blessings, which, as mentioned before, declared one’s racial lineage, although Smith’s universalism dictated that any person of any race that wished to receive them could do so. Even those considered to be outside the Abrahamic covenant and bloodline of Israel, including peoples of African descent.[v]

None of the patriarchal blessings given to Mormons of African descent before 1850 declare Israelite lineage for their recipients. In accordance with the racist view of the time, Africans were viewed as “hereditary heathens,” that were born with biological deficiencies.[vi] This view, combined with teachings on the Curse of Cain by Brigham Young, Orson Hyde, John Taylor, Parley Pratt, and others, forbade peoples of African descent from participating in temple liturgy or African-descended men from holding ecclesiastical office. Those racist views were also seen in not declaring peoples of African descent as members of the “chosen” House of Israel and Abrahamic covenant. As the quote at the beginning of the post shows, Mormons of African descent were not declared part of the lineage of Israel by direction of the President of the LDS Church.

Between 1852 and (at least) 1934, patriarchs were asked not to declare lineage for Mormons of African descent in patriarchal blessings. For instance, consider this quote from 1934:

“Following the death of Joseph Smith the policy of the church was to exclude blacks from ordination to the priesthood and from Latter-day Saint temples. Although some black members of the church were given patriarchal blessings, declarations of lineage were omitted as a matter of policy. But guidelines were not consistent, and the question remained the subject of debate. In 1934 Patriarch James H. Wallis wrote in his journal, “I have always known that one of negro blood cannot receive the Priesthood nor the blessings of the Temple, and are also disqualified from receiving a patriarchal blessing . . . But I am sure there is no objection to giving them a blessing of encouragement and comfort, leaving out all reference to lineage and sealing.” Apostle John A. Widtsoe relayed President Heber J. Grant’s reply to Wallis’s request for a ruling. It stated, “It will be alright for Brother Wallis to bless them, but as to their status in the future, that their status in the future, that is . . . in the hands of the Lord.”[i]

Mormons of African descent have stated that there was a change after 1978, the year of Official Declaration Two. After June 8, 1978, several Mormons of African descent have had their lineage declared by patriarchs in new patriarchal blessings. Racial practices like declining to declare Israelite lineage have continued through the actions of individual patriarchs (no patriarch I have spoken to has confirmed that there is any direction given to patriarchs on declaring lineage for peoples of African descent today). I have heard of several patriarchal blessings given to Mormons of African descent that do not declare lineage at all, which places them outside of the Israelite “norm” in modern Mormonism. I also have heard of a stake president in the Midwest that had to ask a patriarch to include lineage in blessings, because he was not doing it for any individual, regardless of race.

If you identify as a Latter-day Saint of African descent, would you mind filling out this anonymous survey about lineage in LDS patriarchal blessings? This can help Latter-day Saints better understand the ways that race and lineage are tethered to one another in Mormonism today. With more information, we can better teach.

SURVEY (FIVE QUESTIONS)

 

 

[i] Irene Bates “Patriarchal Blessings and the Routinization of Charisma” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Vol.26, No.3 (Fall 1993): 7-8. Quoted letter is from Gloria W. Rytting, James H. Wallis, Poet, Printer and Patriarch (Salt Lake City: R. & R. Enterprises, 1989), 186. My thanks to Jonathan Stapley for finding the reference.

[ii] William James Mortimer, “Patriarchal Blessings,” The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, accessed June 7, 2017, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Patriarchal_Blessings.

[iii] Matthew 3:9, King James Version.

[iv] See Samuel M. Brown, “Early Mormon Adoption Theology and the Mechanics of Salvation,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no 3 (Summer 2011): 6, 22.

[v] I just completed a revise and resubmit to Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture that explores these topics more in-depth. Stay tuned for a future issue!

[vi] Rebecca Goetz uses the phrase “hereditary heathens” to describe seventeenth-century Protestant views of religio-racial curses, but the ideas remained popular in American history. See Rebecca Anne Goetz, Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 1-12, 112-137.

 

Comments

  1. John Taber says:

    I’m white and my original patriarchal blessing did not declare a lineage. I went back to the patriarch a year later for an addendum blessing that declared it.

  2. This is fascinating. I grew up knowing about the priesthood and temple ban, and I’ve read about it, but until reading the Sistas tweets, I hadn’t focused on the fact that it also expressed itself this way in patriarchal blessings.

  3. I recommend: Religion of a Different Color:Race and Mormon Struggle for Whiteness. This issue is so much more complex than the simple “white washed” explanation given at lds.org. Before reading this book I found the hackles on my back raised when confronted with the racism of Mormonism. Now I find I am more compassionate towards the struggles of Mormonism to exist in the early years of intolerance to everyone outside the social norm, and its struggle to be accepted. I am fascinated with flawed oral history and how long it took for Mormons to dig through the rubble of ingrained miscommunication during the reign of Brigham Young. Mr Reeve’s treatise of the history of Mormonism using a racial lens is must read for anyone wanting to make sense of the Mormon relationship with race.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    When I first saw Sistas tweet, it struck me as odd, but after thinking about it, it made sense. After the Nauvoo Temple there were swirling conflations of priesthood and lineage (for lots of reasons). But you see this evidenced in statements by BY in particular. E.g., he claimed: “You will never see a man called to preside in the Priesthood of God on the earth who is not purely of the blood of Abraham.” Brigham Young, October 9, 1853, in “Minutes of the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Millennial Star 16 (January 28, 1854): 52. This lineage was just another mapping of the exclusion.

  5. Tiberius says:

    Fascinating, I didn’t know anything about the patriarchal blessing issue. Great post.

  6. Yeah, when you think about it, it makes sense, I just hadn’t realized that before. I heard stories of black folks getting “Cain” lineage, but I was ignorant of just straight up denial of lineage.

  7. Tiberius says:

    Although to be frank I don’t really have much of a testimony of the whole lineage thing. Modern genetics shows that if we have any semitic descent then we’re almost certainly a bit of every tribe, putting us into one category is a throwback to 19th century understandings of ancestry from chronologically coterminous groups, although I like the idea of making our adoption as Abraham’s seed concrete by assigning us to a particular tribe (speaking of which, another good book on race and the LDS Church; All Abraham’s Children by Mauss).

  8. This is why it is so important to have these conversations. If I, who am probably more interested in this stuff than the average member, and who has actually read books about it, could go this long w/o ever knowing about the blessing issue, then what about the average member?

  9. Tiberius, even when the lineage thing was understood more literally, there was still the old nineteenth century doctrine that reception of the Holy Ghost at baptism “purged” all non-Israelite blood and actually changed the person into descendant of Israel. So literal “lineage” was still not literally dependent on a person’s family tree. God is able to make Abraham’s children out of rocks and all that.

  10. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. Like J., JKC, and others, I see the logic but it doesn’t work for a Mormonism that seeks to be a global faith and to benefit “black and white [and any other race or ethnicity].” I’m willing to bet that this is something that hasn’t been explicitly addressed in training for patriarchs, but that could be quite easily.

    Also, FWIW, about 1/3 of JS Sr.’s patriarchal blessings don’t have lineage declared. Max Mueller’s book will talk more about Jane Manning James’ blessing and what that reflects about Mormon racial views in the 19c.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Like others, I consider myself pretty well up to speed on Mormonism and yet I was completely ignorant of this lineage denial practice.

    Unlike everyone else I knew, I was not assigned to Ephraim, but to Joseph (since I was apparently a mixture of Ephraim and Manasseh). I’ve often wondered whether my youthful afro and thick lips led the patriarch to hedge his bets on my lineage assignment. But whatever the reason, I love being different, so I’m happy with my Joseph assignment.

  12. I was surprised to read, among other things, that the patriarchal “blessing also declares the blood lineage of the receiver in relation to his or her connection to the House of Israel” — but only surprised because I grew up with children of a Native American father whose patriarchal blessing says he is of Manasseh when his children (all from the same mother) had blessings declaring some of Ephraim and some of Manasseh. Such declarations seem to make nonsense out of either the blessings or the usual conception of family structure in the hereafter.

    JKC: “the old nineteenth century doctrine that reception of the Holy Ghost at baptism “purged” all non-Israelite blood and actually changed the person into descendant of Israel.” Was this a Mormon doctrine of trans-substantiation? I had thought trans-substantiation was only found in Mormonism when we bless the brownies/cookies, etc to nourish and strengthen our bodies!

  13. Scott Roskelley says:

    I was declared to be of the lineage of Manasseh, so when everyone sings, “Ye Elders of Israel” and the chorus says, “We’re going to the mountains of Ephraim to dwell”, I just stay silent, and watch my white brothers ignorantly smile and shout. Same with the song “Spirit of God”, which is why on some temple dedications the verse, “And Ephraim be crowned with his blessings in Zion” is skipped to be more inclusive. One note on Ephraim and black lineage is that Asenath was Egyptian, therefore of the cursed lineage of Pharaoh based on the book of Abraham, therefore, President Kimball was praying to overthrow a curse on blacks receiving temple blessings, when Joseph himself never believed in this curse prevention of priesthood, and all this while Kimball was an Ephraimite who was cursed due to Joseph’s marriage to an Egyptian, and all the while carrying “out of africa” homosapien dna like all of us. I think Darius Grey said he was of the all the tribes accept one, a black missionary in our mission recently (2008) had problems as his patriarchal blessing said he was a descendant of Abraham but he received no lineage, and Elijah Abel I believe was declared “of Cainaan”.

  14. It would probably be useful to spend some time with a younger Patriarch and discussing his understanding of lineage and how he was trained. My father is a Patriarch though he has been not actively served in that calling for almost a decade now. When I asked him his perspective on lineage especially since I have friends from the same family assigned to different tribes: Judah and Benjamin.

    His comment concerning this was that lineage should not be understood in the context of primarily physical or biological descendancy but instead a spiritual adoption. Most of us have many if not all the bloodlines running through our genetics so the lineage declaration simply identifies that line through which we will be held responsible in life.

    Certainly there is a fair amount of independence for a Patriarch in how they operate as the Stake President’s direction from the First Presidency is a basic audit every year by reading a sampling of the blessings to ensure the Patriarch isn’t going off the reservation. So each can likely have different understanding of the “rules” under which they operate depending on when they were called. This is why calling out when lineages are not being assigned is important.

  15. We are so incredibly weird.

  16. Steve G. says:

    Some years ago a black friend was teaching an Aaronic Priesthood class which I was sitting in on. The topic was on patriarchal blessings and was from those ancient Aaronic Priesthood manuals that existed from the time I was a teenager (around 1990) up until being replaced by the Come follow Me program. At one point he stopped the lesson and told the class his blessing didn’t have a lineage, but simply said he was of the “seed of Abraham”. It surprised me, so I told him I’d check with my grandpa, who was a patriarch though not in an active Stake Patriarch calling.

    When I emailed him the question, he responded:

    “In answer to your question, a specific directive from the General Authorities of the Church some time ago, confirmed that any descendant of negroid ancestry receiving a Patriarchal Blessing, as regarding the declaration of lineage, the promise need not include the tribal lineage, but necessarily must include “the seed of Abraham” as sufficient. Such confirms all the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant, and that is sufficient. No greater blessing concerning lineage can be applied.”

    I copied the email and gave it to my friend, which he seemed to appreciate, even though not fully satisfying. Too be honest I never gave it much more though after that until this post and went and dug up the old email. My inside source disappeared when my Grandpa died, but if I could ask him, I’d like to get more detail on the dates he was given the direction and if “inactive” patriarch continue to get more direction or if that direction only goes to active stake patriarchs. This is important information because my Grandpa ceased being a Stake Patriarch in the early 90’s though continued giving blessing for his grandchildren and possibly other since then as is allowed.

  17. That just breathtakingly wrong that as late as 1990 there was -any- directive that included the word “negroid”

  18. Bro. Jones says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I had no idea about this, as others have said.

  19. Scott Roskelley says:

    JStapley- my CES institute director back in 2003 said something similar about lineage and those called to preside. He asked everyone with the lineage of Ephraim to raise their hands. Nearly the entire class raised their hands. Then he asked if there were any of the lineage of Manasseh. Only myself and another hispanic girl raised their hands. Then he explained that only the lineage of Ephraim were called to preside over the latter-day work, and this was the reason that Apostles will always be of the lineage of Ephraim. (See the Ency of Mormonism entry on Ephraim where it quotes sec. 133, “there shall they fall down and be crowned with glory, even in Zion, by the hands of the servants of the Lord, even the children of Ephraim”) At the time I thought he was completely wrong and that an hispanic apostle of a different lineage may be called soon. However, since 2003 he has proven correct. Still I would like to know if the record is true that indeed, all apostles, general relief society, general young women, and general primary presidents for the entire history of the church have only been white Ephraimites? Anything to the rumor that Pres. Monson – is of the tribe of Levi?

  20. Some Dude's Fry Sauce says:

    @Frank Pellett didn’t the poster just report his grandfather using that word? Who knows what the official directive said. Not that it makes any of this much better, but I would absolutely expect some of the fossils in our ward to use words like that no matter how well crafted the words they were relaying.

  21. I’ve come to the conclusion that if there are “directives” to funnel people to different tribes based on how they look that I’d make a very poor Patriarch, flagrantly disregarding such things in favor of whatever the Spirit had in mind.

  22. I’m aware of black people in the United Kingdom whose patriarchs declared their lineage as “Ham” even after the momentous and long overdue 1978 change.

  23. Stapley, thanks for that note — very relevant. Here’s some of my musings on the doctrinal sources for a belief in the “literal seed” of Abraham and why it was mistaken to think it ever actually meant “direct blood descendant” (in the period of the Restoration, or at any time after Galatians was written):

    By the time Joseph Smith established the Church through revelation from God on April 6, 1830, therefore, if there were any confusion about this matter arising from the Abrahamic context, it had at least been clear for close to 1,800 years that all who accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are baptized are Christ’s, “then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29). . . .

    Despite these teachings, which appear to have been clear to Joseph Smith, the man through whom the Abrahamic context and The Book of Mormon material was revealed, “for much of its history — from [1852] until 1978 — the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances” (“Race and the Priesthood”). Protestant folk beliefs used to justify slavery and master race ideology, which held that the Biblical “curse of Cain” (and of Noah’s grandson Canaan) were “black” African skin pigmentation, had — despite lack of scriptural support for this idea — taken root in the Church and blossomed in 1852 after Brigham Young preached two sermons on the subject (Ibid.). These were then supplemented with a speculative Mormon gloss theorizing that people born in this supposedly inferior African race (or any other inferior caste, class, or circumstances) were merely reaping the just desserts from disobedience or apathy in the pre-mortal “War in Heaven,” in which a host of God’s “spirit children” followed Lucifer, rebelled against God’s Plan, and were repelled and cast out by the heavenly host loyal to Jesus Christ and led by the Archangel Michael. (See Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU Studies 47, no. 2 (Spring 2008).) (https://bycommonconsent.com/2015/06/08/on-lifting-the-priesthood-and-temple-ban/)

    In any event, as Tiberius has mentioned, our better understanding of genetics and statistics shows that “literal seed” of Abraham is a meaningless category. Good thing this is set right in Galatians. Too bad we didn’t pay more attention to Galatians 3:29 from the beginning of Brigham Young’s tenure (Joseph Smith arguably understood it) — we’d have avoided this whole terrible episode of the Priesthood and Temple Ban and all the wild, unjust, and false speculation entertained by many Church leaders thereafter to justify and defend Brigham Young’s policy imperatives.

  24. Manuel Villalobos says:

    I want to comment more fully later, but in the mean time, can anyone share a brief yet hopefully comprehensive explanation as to why the declaration of one’s “lineage” is of any value added in current LDS soteriology?

    I don’t understand why is this necessary at all. At least, I don’t understand how it is beneficial in any way. I do see and have personally experienced how it is detrimental to many people in many ways, and how it has caused division and even bullying. I find it questionable at many levels, especially when certain cultural groups are falsely identified with a questionable story lines that for many scholars have been proven fictional.

    Therefore, this is my question to the LDS: why does this matter? Why is it necessary in a Latter Day Saint soteriology context?

  25. J Bradley Armstrong says:

    One of my ancestors received a patriarchal blessing in about 1900 that pronounced his lineage as being of Ephraim. He was also told in his blessing that he would receive the priesthood and go on a mission.

    Only problem was that his mother (my great great grandmother) was born a slave in Tennessee but had a light complexion and passed as white.

    Their Stake President raised the question of my grandmothers racial background to President Snow and the First Presidency who pondered this issue and then declared that my ancestor could not receive the priesthood and could not go on a mission.

    Nice exception to the rule, eh?

    jb

  26. To most, the lineage doesn’t mean much. It matters in that it has been (continues to be?) used as a method for “othering” non-white people. Really, truly should have been fixed ages ago.

    Soteriologically (having to do with the doctrine of salvation; I had to look it up), we want to be included with the “seed of Abraham”, to be part of the blessings and promises given to him. Each of the twelve tribes were given specific jobs and blessings, and presumably your lineage would be some direction on what you should be doing to build the Kingdom. For me, it rates as high as astrological sign for life meaning.

    For those who continue with “it doesn’t really matter, why is anyone complaining?”, again, it’s been used to create a “lower class” of people who we’ll let play with us for now but we know that “they” will never get the same blessings as “us”

  27. marcella says:

    I really appreciate this posting. I had not ever heard about this and find it fascinating. I’m also interested in Frank’s comment that each tribe has specific jobs and blessings. Where would one find out what all of those are? I’ve never heard that spoken about in church either.

  28. Old Man says:

    Frank,
    I have several friends with blessings which cite other tribes than Ephraim or Manassah. Never did they feel different or part of a lesser caste. My black friends are all Ephraim. Other than the post, what do you base your thoughts on?

  29. Thanks for this, I guess. To be honest, I heard enough different stories about lineage when I was seminary age that I gave up on any significance and reverted to a fairly generic “seed of Abraham by blood or adoption” as the operative phrase, and moved on. But now, making distinctions including exclusion for people of African descent, just infuriates me on first hearing. Sigh.

  30. My husband is Jewish and a Levite. I am an LDS convert and our daughter is the first one in our family to be raised LDS from birth. Her patriarchal blessing has her lineage as Ephraim which is also mine. People from our Ward were curious as to what her lineage would be. As I understand it, lineage has more to do with one’s spiritual mission in this life than DNA. We are put where we are needed. A Jewish convert in our Ward also happens to be a Levite. But his pat. blessing says his lineage is Levite. Now whether he told the patriarch before hand that he was Jewish and a Levite I don’t know and he has since passed away so I cannot ask him.

  31. Remember, even if the sorting hat thinks you’d do well in Slytherin, if you choose Gryffindor, that’s where you belong.

  32. Manuel Villalobos says:

    Frank,

    Thank you. It does make sense that the strong restorationist sentiment in the early days of the church would want to make sure how members of the church can relate to the Old Testament narrative in Abrahamic terms. I agree with you it is a relic that should have been fixed long ago and that has been effectively used to segregate non-whites and impose on them a false and condescending narrative about their heritage, which I find disturbing.

  33. Old Man –
    “the black people I know are just fine” is a truly bad dismissal. Please re-read the many incidents where people were not given a lineage, or worse the lineage of “Ham”. Re-read the directive that “negroid” people, that “all the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant, and that is sufficient. No greater blessing concerning lineage can be applied”.

    When you’re treating people as different just because of how they look or what their apparent lineage is, you’re treating them as lower class. It doesn’t matter if no one else knows about it, the institution is regarding them differently. It needs to be fixed and previous instances repaired.

  34. Worth keeping in mind that we can claim all the Israelite lineage we want, but as far as the scriptures are concerned, we are gentiles.

    >D&C 109:60 Now these words, O Lord, we have spoken before thee, concerning the revelations and commandments which thou hast given unto us, who are identified with the Gentiles.

    Lamanites, whoever they are, are the stars of the show; gentiles get to assist the Lamanites in building Zion (3 Nephi 21:23). Book of Mormon people have the lineage of Ephraim (Ishmael), Manasseh (Lehi), and Judah (Mulek).

  35. I am not LDS but I really enjoy this site and comment from time to time. So general conference talks are they scripture? Is Thomas Monson the only prophet?
    I enjoy the fact that prophets aren’t perfect seems biblical to me. So polygamy can be found wrong for the present time, so to other thing? Racism can declared wrong.
    When does something taught become revelation to be followed and when does it just act as an opinion?
    Church authorities are mentioned all the time it seems their words are often treated a scripture.

  36. Kristine says:

    “As I understand it, lineage has more to do with one’s spiritual mission in this life than DNA.”

    Needs to be said more strongly than that: lineage has absolutely nothing to do with DNA.

  37. Manuel Villalobos says:

    “As I understand it, lineage has more to do with one’s spiritual mission in this life than DNA.”

    If I had a dollar for every time I heard in seminary and institute the words: “but you are special because you are literal descendants of….”

    Well, I would only have lie 200 dollars, but still. Mormons are weird with this. They love to give edges to things that shouldn’t matter, but that’s how they shape their people. Whether they are born in the church, or in the last days, or in the covenant, or to a Caucasian family, or to a magnificent combination of wealthy Caucasian Mormon family in Utah Valley (wow, those are the true valiant spirits). All these things they have created, all this culture based on these flawed beliefs that directly contradict the teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.

    I still remember going to class for Old Testament, having the teacher make such a HUGE deal about how a birthright was exchanged for a bowl of lentils, and everyone agreeing about how terrible that was, and the consequences of such a trivial exchange for generations and generations of descendants.

    The church doesn’t like to address these things head on. In part because these things are so meshed into the culture, resources and doctrine that the task is daunting. And in part because they still like to have these divisions, these little elites within elites that at the end of the day benefit most the groups that are already the most privileged. I have no expectation but to watch this trend continue as these privileged groups are the ones that decide the direction of these things, therefore the answer is an easy one.

  38. Tiberius says:

    I think it’s a natural outgrowth of our emphasis on kinship networks and family-based communities. In our increasingly atomistic, individualized society it seems irrelevant whose one’s ancestral community is, but I appreciate the fact that the Church is one of the institutions in society trying to make those bonds more relevant. In Mormonism salvation isn’t an individual affair, so it makes sense that it takes those lineages more seriously, even if our scientific understanding of what those lines of descent are changes across time.

    Of course, in our eagerness to make our lineage and ancestral heritage mean something some well-meaning people try to emphasize the specialness of a heritage, but for the most part I don’t think they really think through the flip-side negative implications (i.e. if Ephraim is special, then by definition not-Ephraim is not special) for people who don’t fit into that category.

  39. Trouble is, being “more special” than pretty much all of creation doesn’t really feel that great to us. We have to point at some other person and insist that we are “more special” than -them-.

    I am literally a child of God? meh. Can you tell me I’m literally better than her over there?

  40. Bro. B. says:

    Seems we don’t get a lot of instruction about the nature and significance of lineage in the church, depending on who your patriarch is. Is it DNA, is it latter-day spiritual role? If the latter, again we hear mostly about Ephraim. What are the roles of the other tribes?

  41. Trouble is, being “more special” than pretty much all of creation doesn’t really feel that great to us. We have to point at some other person and insist that we are “more special” than -them-.

    I am literally a child of God? meh. Can you tell me I’m literally better than her over there?

    Northern Europeans living in the Jello Belt are Star-Bellied Sneetches? Story checks out.

  42. Elizabeth St Dunstan says:

    Thanks for this post! I have a few examples from my own family that illustrate the othering of patriarchal blessing lineage, but to a much lesser extent than Mormons of African descent have experienced.

    My grandmother was the child of Dutch immigrants in Ogden Utah in the early 1900s. At that point in history, Ogden’s large Dutch immigrant community served as the lower class laborers in the city much like the Irish in the late 1800s on the East coast. Anyhow, she and all of her siblings were declared to the lineage of Dan because their local patriarch believed each tribe was associated with a specific European nationality, and Holland didn’t qualify for it’s own tribe, so they would have to be adopted into the geographically nearest tribe of Denmark, which was clearly Dan *intense eye rolls.* (I would love to hear that guy’s take on Zebulon, but I digress). She lost the transcript of her blessing a few years later, and was directed to get a new blessing. By this time she had married a man of English descent and moved, so it was a different patriarch. He declared her “not of the literal seed of Israel, but adopted through the covenant of eternal marriage to the lineage of Ephraim.” Her entire blessing then went on to detail how faithful obedience to her husband was the path to exaltation. Not sure how much of that was based on the wrongheaded assumption that he was her ticket to Ephraim, but it surely wasn’t divine inspiration since her husband abused her emotionally and physically and was in the habit of raping her and their daughters at gunpoint on a regular basis. Any influence of that blessing her life was incredibly negative.

    One of her sons married a woman of mixed European and Native American ancestry. Their children all received patriarchal blessings in the 1990s. The two darker skinned children were declared of the lineage of Manasseh while the two light skinned children were declared Ephraim. Among my aunt and her siblings, the ones who lived on a reservation were declared Manasseh, while the ones who were perceived as assimilating into white culture were declared Ephraim.

    I agree with the commenter who equated tribal designations with astrological signs. Neither is useful to me in my life, but Abrahamic lineage is sadly used to create an exclusive in club and hierarchy.