The Seed of Joseph

This seems to be blacks and the priesthood weekend. First we have Paul Reeve’s guest post at Keepa on Joseph F. Smith’s notes from his 1879 interview of Elijah Abel (the coolest thing I’ve seen in quite a while!). Then I just received the latest Dialogue (51/3 2018), which is devoted largely to material on blacks and the priesthood in honor of 40 years since the revelation. I’ve started reading it, and I just finished Matthew L. Harris, “Mormons and Lineage: The Complicated History of Blacks and Patriarchal Blessings, 1830-2018.” (I’ve seen Matt present a number of times at history conferences, and he always does a great job.)

This article was interesting in its own right, but it also had some personal resonance for me, which I’ll try to explain below.

The principal feature of Mormon patriarchal blessings is a declaration of lineage, meaning from which patriarch in the House of Israel one descends. (For background on this practice, see here.) The vast majority of Mormons are assigned to Ephraim. A substantial minority (Pacific Islanders, for example) get assigned to Manasseh, and the rare Jewish convert gets assigned to Judah. Historically assignments to the other tribes were rare, but at least some assignments to every tribe have been made by patriarchs.

So what do you do when a black member comes to a patriarch seeking a blessing? The article traces the history of this question, and it’s fascinating. The Church never seemed to have a good answer, so they pretty much punted and left it to individual patriarchs without giving them solid direction. Which meant the whole thing turned into a mess.

Historically some patriarchs would assign black members to Cain, or Ham, or Canaan. Or they would be adopted into the seed of Abraham or the House of Israel. Or they wouldn”t be given any lineage assignment whatsoever.

You might think the 1978 revelation would have fixed that, but no, it didn’t. Did the revelation mean the historical notion of descent from Cain/Ham/Canaan was incorrect, or just that it didn’t matter any more? So PBs post 1978 continued to be a mess, and general leaders didn’t seem to have any idea what to do about it (or if they did, they couldn’t agree).

It’s a great article, and I highly recommend it. But that is all just background. I have my own PB story that might just be affected by this history.

I received my PB in Wilmette, Illinois (the center of the sole stake at that time in northern Illinois) in the early 70s. (I don’t have it in front of me: it’s in the back of our pantry somewhere and would require a crane to excavate right now.) All I knew about the patriarch was that he had been some sort of badass resistance fighter against the Nazis during WWII, which being an all American boy I thought was way cool.

I remember he talked to me for quite a while to get to know me better, and finally he gave me the blessing. Rather than being assigned to Ephraim, as basically everyone else I knew had been, I was told my lineage was mixed but that I was of the tribe of Joseph.

I’ve always thought that was cool because it was so different from everyone else. And I still think it’s cool. But occasionally over the years I would wonder whether it might have had something to do with my appearance as a young man.

I was blessed (?) with very, VERY curly hair. As a boy I hated it, because combing it did no good, it just went every which way on its own. At some point my sister two years older than I am (and way cooler than I ever was or ever will be) told me I should wear it as an afro. I thought I would have to get a perm or something and didn’t want to do anything like that, but no, she said, my hair was already plenty curly enough, she just had to cut it a certain way. So I said let’s do it, and I was pleased with the result. So from that day forward (except for my mission and once I got a career job, when I just cut it short the way I wear it now) I wore my hair as an afro. (Those of you that are friends with me on Facebook can see my profile picture to see what it looked like when I was 18).

Further, I have thick lips. (They were useful when I played trombone in fifth grade band.)

So anyway, I’m reading Matt’s article, and the main choices for blacks historically seemed to be Cain/Ham/Canaan, adoption into the seed of Abraham or Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or the House of Israel generally, or no assignment of lineage at all. But I noticed something interesting; there seemed to be a (very) occasional and (very) minority practice among some patriarchs of considering blacks a mixture perhaps of Ephraim and Manasseh.

William Smith, brother of Joseph and third patriarch of the Church (after Joseph Sr. and Hyrum) blessed Joseph T. Ball, an African American from Boston and assigned him a lineage through Joseph (IE father of Ephraim and Manasseh).(See p. 90.)

James Wallis, a traveling patriarch in the Canadian and Northern States Mission, blessed a young man who was “somewhat Negroid in appearance” that he was “of the blood of Abraham, through Ephraim and Manasseh.” (p. 97.) Although the words are different, that is functionally the same blessing I got (i.e., mixed through Joseph).

Back in the day missionaries in areas with substantial race mixing (such as Brazil and South Africa) were instructed to give “lineage lessons” that focused on genealogy and  discreetly evaluating the person’s nose, face and lips  and other features that might reveal whether or not the person had “negro blood.” (p. 104).

Eldred G. Smith, who was the Church patriarch from 1947 to 1979, early on declared lineages for black members, but he struggled with it. For one couple feeling “somewhat perplexed”  about how to declare their lineage he “spent the night in prayer and contemplation and finally felt impressed to indicate that they were ‘associated with the line of Manasseh’.” (p. 110). But Elder Smith would soon become a hardliner for not declaring any lineage at all in such cases.

The Church could never settle on any direction that made any sense, leaving patriarchs on their own to muddle through. In 1976 Elder Perry reported one patriarch was assigning blacks to the line of Israel, and others were assigning them to various other tribes.(p. 21)

At the end of the article Matt points out that the current church handbook states “some church members may not have any of the lineage of Israel.” (p. 129) That is a remarkably stupid statement, which I assume they just havne’t gotten around to editing yet.

So anyway, was my patriarch hedging his bets on my lineage assignment due to my appearance? I have no way of knowing for sure, but as I read Matt’s piece that possibility seemed more and more likely. Why else wouldn’t he have just done the pro forma Ephraim thing that he did for absolutely everyone else I knew at the time?

All of this raises another question: Should we even be bothering with patriarchal blessings anymore? What is the point of “assigning lineage” when under our contemporary knowledge of population dynamics such a lineage assignment is meaningless (i.e., if Ephraim had descendants that survive to today, then everyone is descended from Ephraim.  The idea that this person is descended from him but that one isn’t doesn’t make a lick of sense in 2019. For details see my Patriachal Blessing Lineages post that I link to above.)


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, and here’s another thing I noticed while reading the article. Our church leaders need to stop thinking that the names Cain and Canaan are related terms. It’s true they look and sound very similar in English, but that’s just a linguistic accident. Cain is Hebrew Qayin (meaning a smith, metal worker) and Canaan is Hebrew Kena’an, Meaning Westland [from the perspective of Babylon and Assyria).

  2. Great stuff sir. However, I couldn’t stop thinking of Rachel Dolezal as I was reading this. In the worldwide youth fireside, Sister Nelson told of a story where she asked different members of the congregation to identify what tribe they were from. I can’t remember exactly, but I believe she said most, if not all tribes were represented in that meeting. I wonder if different patriarchs receive different training, or if some take more liberties than others. I can’t think of one time that knowing what tribe I am from has helped me in any way. I did have a conversation on an airline with an orthodox Jewish fellow and told him that I had been assigned to the tribe of Ephraim. He got a good laugh out of that one. I didn’t know what to think at the time, but now I am a little embarrassed about it.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    The impression I got from the article is that patriarchs get basically no training beyond follow the spirit, which I have to admit surprised me.

  4. bodensmate says:

    “Historically some patriarchs would assign black members to Cain, or Ham, or Canaan.”
    This absolutely shocks me. I have never heard of anything like this. If I were a black man, I’m not sure if I would insist on having my PB redone so that I could be appropriately assigned to a tribe of Israel, or if I would be so disgusted with the previous patriarch that I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with a PB.

  5. Well, now you gave me something new to worry about for my black daughter’s future in Utah Valley. I foresee a very pointed conversation with a stake patriarch in my future, which may include a threat of violence.

  6. I mean, WTF guys? Why do we have to be such tools? Unforced errors much?

  7. Not a fan of patriarchal blessings says:

    Well, one can skip having a patriarchal blessing entirely. It is not a “salvific ordinance”. It is not a blessing for health or comfort. It is not going to provide any guidance that is not otherwise available — at least assuming a functioning gift of the Holy Ghost. And when the patriarch includes a comment about then current matters that the recipient knows better than the patriarch does and perceives as false and uninspired, as in my case (having nothing to do with race), then the patriarchal blessing is not a blessing at all — except to the extent it may be a blessing to learn at a young age that supposedly inspired church leaders can be flat wrong — and the whole seems invalidated as a personal guide to anything. Of course, it doesn’t help a teenager deal with that to learn of full, born-in-the-covenant sibling friends being assigned by the patriarch to different tribes. (This didn’t make a lick of sense in the 1960s.) Or of those multiple patriarchal blessings promising long-dead folks that they’d be around for the second coming. Somehow one might want to find a theory of patriarchal blessings that avoids the contingent fortune telling model — or just avoid them entirely. Anybody got a workable theory?

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    A Dad, in that situation I would definitely encourage you to talk to the patriarch first. Cain/ Ham/Canaan or no assignment at all should be off the table. If he won’t commit to that, I would find that unacceptable and talk to the SP and/or AA70.

  9. My patriarchal blessing was one of the first big cracks in my shelf. At the time I had key life decisions I had to make. What I got was a blessing that was . . for someone else. It didn’t tackle any issue I had and provided nothing but the most generic of guidance. I read it as communicating that Heavenly Father doesn’t know who I am or doesn’t care. I’ve reread it several times sense and my initial sense has been strengthened over time.

  10. Steve, do you think that’s more on HF, or the Patriarch?

  11. Jpv, that is a fair point. My struggle is that patriarchs are supposedly are personal conduit to God. Either he screwed up or there was no one on the other side. My sense is that he thought he was fulfilling his calling.

  12. My identical twin sibling was identified to a different tribe than me. The rest of our family is Ephraim, but this sibling (my identical twin) is Manasseh. Shame on church leaders for not providing more guidance to patriarchs and members reagrding the meaning and significance of the tribe identification. No one knows what it really means, and memebers (and local leaders) are left to guess and speculate.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    When I said above that patriarchs don’t get any training, I was talking specifically about the lineage assignment aspect. They do get training otherwise.

  14. “Historically some patriarchs would assign black members to Cain, or Ham, or Canaan.” This is deeply troubling. And another reason why Church leaders need to apologize for our racist past. And the post rightly calls into the question the need for a PB. Do we really need a “patriarch” to intercede between us and God? I think not. Apparently assignment of tribe is random, as are many of the blessings.

    As an aside, I’ve only been acquainted with one patriarch. And he was hardly patriarch material. Certainly not someone I would want a blessing from. So selection may be an issue, as well as training.

  15. Patriarchs are Mormon shaman. I’m glad they have minimal or no rules or training. That preserves one of the few remaining aspects of our faith which is not correlated, programmed, and bureaucratized.

  16. I will say that the blessings I, my wife, and our oldest daughter received were deeply personal and revelatory, even if sometimes inscrutable. I mean, in retrospect my blessing basically foretold two decades ago the merger of HP and Elders Quorums and used that to remind me that with God all things are possible. Is this another case of leadership roulette?

    That being said, the utility of the tribe thing is a mystery.

  17. Shane on the commenters for not understanding epigenetics before they comment…

    I mean, if it’s fair to condemn church leaders for being fallen mortals, certainly it’s fair to condemn self righteous BCC apostates, right?

    Perhaps the assumption that patriarchs are meant to give a 23 and me DNA result is a flawed assumption.

  18. Not a fan of patriarchal blessings says:

    As nearly as I can tell only “Idiots” has been doing any condemning in this thread. There seem to have been a number of at least semi-official, inconsistent statements/assumptions about what a lineage declaration in a patriarchal blessing is supposed to mean — and perhaps a number of unofficial speculations. Some of us gave up subscribing to any of them years ago because we couldn’t make consistent sense out of them. To others those declarations have been very important.

  19. Not a fan needs better reading comprehension skills…

    “Shame on church leaders.”

    Funny how the same folk that get offended when church leaders encourage them to keep the commandments, because they’re being shared, are very willing to shame church leaders for not being perfect.

    Very consistent BCC.
    Very hypocritical.
    Just saying.

  20. Not a fan of patriarchal blessings says:

    “Idiots” needs better writing skills. “shame on” is not the same as “condemn”
    It seems there may be a lot behind Idiots’ responses here that is not within this OP and thread. As I don’t know what it is, I’d better bow out..

  21. Susan W H says:

    Kevin, your patriarch wasn’t a Norwegian, was he? My uncle, a patriarch in the midwest, told of an incident where two women came to him for a blessing. Well, when he tried, his mind went blank. He couldn’t do it. He talked to them and they admitted they had black ancestors. I don’t remember exactly when I heard this story, but I’m sure it was before 1978.

    And yes, he was a resistance fighter during WWII, but I don’t remember him having lived in your area.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    I think he was from a Scandinavian country, so yeah, he could have been from Norway. If he spent any time in Wilmette (north of Chicago) then that’s him. I remember that he was highly respected.

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