Lineage: A Troubling Concept

Here’s a quote from Lesson 7, “The Abrahamic Covenant,” that caught my attention in Sunday School:

The great majority of those who become members of the Church are literal descendants of Abraham through Ephraim, son of Joseph. Those who are not literal descendants of Abraham and Israel must become such, and when they are baptized and confirmed they are grafted into the tree and are entitled to all the rights and privileges as heirs.

My problem with this quote is that I don’t believe lineage or being “a literal descendant of Abraham” matters one whit for one’s standing in the LDS Church or one’s place in heaven. It doesn’t really bother me that Joseph Fielding Smith published the above quote in The Improvement Era in 1923. It bothers me a little that it is still being used in LDS manuals published after 1978. It bothers me a little more that it’s still there in the manual we are using to teach the adult Sunday School class in 2010. Why am I bothered?

Scriptural Rejection of Lineage

The problem is not the concept of lineage per se. Any given human being either has Abraham (or any other ancient historical personnage) in their ancestral lineage or does not. You and every other living person likewise either are or are not a descendant of Hammurabi or Genghis Khan or Charlemagne. If we had access to the One True Genealogy of Humanity Program, we could just click on a couple of names (you, Abraham) and see if there’s a lineal relation or not. Rather, it is the assertion that one’s salvation is in some way determined by or dependent on one’s lineage that is the problem. What do the scriptures say?

And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham [as] our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. [Matt. 3:9.]

So John the Baptist didn’t think much of the idea that Abrahamic lineage mattered for one’s salvation. The idea, however, persisted. Peter struggled with it. Acts 11 recounts a thrice-repeated vision in which Peter is taught, “What God hath cleansed, that call thou not common” (Acts 11:9). Subsequent events taught Peter and his associates the full meaning of his vision and its accompanying declaration: “Then God hath also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). At that point, it was not whether one was a Jew (having Abraham as one’s ancestral father) or a Gentile that mattered for entry into the Church via baptism or for one’s salvation, it was “repentance unto life.” And anyone could repent, regardless of their ancestry. Paul, of course, repeatedly taught the same message (see Rom. 10:11-13; Eph. 3:27-28).

Likewise, the revelation now canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants as “Official Declaration — 2” announces a definitive change in the how the modern Church views race and lineage:

[E]very faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple. … Priesthood leaders are instructed to follow the policy of carefully interviewing all candidates for ordination to either the Aaronic or the Melchizedek Priesthood to insure that they meet the established standards for worthiness.

This seems quite clear. It is not lineage but “established standards for worthiness” that determines one’s eligibility to receive the priesthood. Nor is a narrow interpretation of this revelation, say that it only concerns priesthood practices rather than broader doctrines of race and salvation, tenable. The declaration extends to “every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple.” In retrospect, it is hard to see how the concept of lineage attained such prominence in early LDS doctrine given the statements made in the New Testament. But it is even harder to see how such concepts continue to circulate after the canonization of the 1978 revelation.

Consulting Gospel Principles

When I first heard the Sunday School manual quote from Joseph Fielding Smith, I imagined it was an oversight that would likely be corrected in the next revision of the text. Perhaps, I thought, the newly revised Gospel Principles manual would gently repudiate or at least politely ignore this disfavored doctrine of lineage. Well, life is full of surprises. Here is from Chapter 42: “Converts to the Church are Israelites either by blood or adoption. They belong to the family of Abraham and Jacob” (p. 248; citations omitted). A more detailed treatment is provided in Chapter 15, at page 84.

The blood descendants of Abraham are not the only people whom God calls His covenant people. In speaking to Abraham, God said, “As many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed [lineage], and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father” (Abraham 2:10). Thus, two groups of people are included in the covenant made with Abraham: (1) Abraham’s righteous blood descendants and (2) those adopted into his lineage by accepting and living the gospel of Jesus Christ (see 2 Nephi 30:2).

Just so there is no confusion, I’ll note that the parenthetical insertion of the word “lineage” is not my insertion — it is in the text of manual at page 84, although not in the text of Abraham 2:10.

So even the newly revised and correlated Gospel Principles manual features prominent discussion of lineage. Now it is possible to hold the view that what the manual is really saying is that lineage does not matter, and discussion of the topic is there simply to provide historical background and color to a story that’s really about the unity of humankind and a universal message of salvation. Except that’s not what the manuals are saying.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the people who write the manuals still think lineage matters. Joseph Fielding Smith certainly thought so. He thought the “great majority” of those joining the LDS Church were “literal descendants of Abraham through Ephraim.” A few unlucky Gentiles of non-Abrahamic descent might by great good fortune find their way into the Church, but if you are born a Gentile, that’s a very unlikely outcome. If, in 2010, you disagree with Joseph Fielding Smith’s view, you don’t put that 1923 quote in the manual. You only put it in the manual if you (and then your editors) agree with it.

LDS Practice

What makes the persistence of the discussion of lineage in the manuals even more puzzling is the complete absence of the concept of lineage from church governance and practice. It appears in only one place, the opening lines of the (private, personal, and non-public) patriarchal blessing that most Mormons receive as a teenager, but plays no role, absolutely none, after that. When being interviewed to receive the priesthood or to be extended a calling, no LDS leader asks what tribe you are. A woman is never requested to bring along her patriarchal blessing to an interview so the bishop can make sure she is a bona fide Ephraimite before calling her to be the Young Womens President. No stake president searches for men from Naphtali or Benjamin to bring tribal diversity to the stake high council.

That such scenarios strike most readers as almost comical simply underlines the fact that in the eyes of the practicing Church — the one run by bishops and stake presidents, as prescribed by the Handbook of Instructions rather than by correlated manuals — one’s lineage really doesn’t matter.


If you find this topic interesting, a lengthier and more scholarly discussion can be found in All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage by Armand Mauss (U. of Illinois Press, 2003), particularly Chapter 2, “Mormons and Israelite Lineage.” If the persistence in LDS manuals of now-disfavored lineage doctrines distresses you, All Abraham’s Children will reassure you that time is on your side. Here’s an overview of the book’s treatment of the topic, taken from the opening paragraph of that chapter (at page 17).

By the middle of the nineteenth century, official Mormon discourse had constructed a synthesis of Israelite and Anglo-Saxon identity, partly to establish a Mormon continuity with ancient Israel and partly in response to the calumny coming from the outside world. By the early twentieth century, official discourse had traced this special identity back to premortal times and attributed it to a divine plan. By the end of the century, however, the highest ranking church leaders had left such tribal teachings to languish in disuse, displacing them with the original universalist teachings of the apostle Paul.

Here is one such universalist statement, from a 1995 Conference talk by Elder James E. Faust. It seems like a nice thought to end on.

Today I would like to speak to the members of the Church worldwide. I hope we can all overcome any differences of culture, race, and language. Since the early days of the Church, the General Authorities and missionaries have traveled over much of the earth to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, as restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith, and to establish the Church with keys and authority in many lands. …
* * *

I have learned to admire, respect, and love the good people from every race, culture, and nation that I have been privileged to visit. In my experience, no race or class seems superior to any other in spirituality and faithfulness.

72 comments for “Lineage: A Troubling Concept

  1. I too was disturbed by the quote. In my Gospel Doctrine class after the quote was given I asked when Joseph Fielding Smith made the statement.( I knew the answer of course, the basic technique of cross examination all lawyers learn, never ask a question unless you know what the witnesses is going to say in advance).

    I then pointed out that the concept of “being of the seed of Abraham” has a different interpretation pre 1978 and offical declaration # 2 and post 1978 and the interpretations are not the same.

    The notion of being a literal descendant of Abraham making you more likely to accept the Gospel and join the church troubles me. I have a hard time believing that tiny bit of your DNA from an ancestor who lived 3500 years ago makes you more likely to join the church.

    In any case moderen genetic research has shown that if a man who lived 3500 years ago had descendants and his line did not die out the vast majority of persons who live on the earth at present would have that man as at least one of our ancestors if we could trace back our pedigree back to 1500 B.C. or so.

    Becoming an heir to the blessings of Abraham has much more to do with a voluntary acceptance of the Gospel of Christ, receiving the necessary ordinances and living a Christlike life than being a physical descendant of Abraham.

    I have had the privilege of meeting Brother Mauss and I have followed his work for many years. I wish the lesson would of had a quote from his book instead of JFS or Bruce R. Mckonkie. I know that is not going to happen but I can dream can’t I.

  2. I see the idea of lineage from a different viewpoint, evidently.

    Even if we agree for the sake of discussion that our lineage back to Abraham isn’t meaningful to us, it *was* meaningful for Abraham. He was promised a great posterity. Your temple blessings include references to your posterity. By definition, nobody can have the blessing of posterity without simultaneously appearing in the lineage of those descendants. The covenant was made initially with Abraham, and it was a blessing to him, even if you want to disavow it for what seem to you very compelling reasons.

    But I disagree that our lineage back to Abraham doesn’t matter. It matters. Another aspect of the covenant between God and Abraham was that the priesthood would be the birthright of his posterity. I suppose you could argue that that statement doesn’t exclude possession of the priesthood by other than Abraham’s posterity, but I think the prophets have been pretty much united in teaching that the priesthood *is* an exclusive possession of Abraham’s posterity. When someone joins the church, he becomes an heir to that promise and eligible for the priesthood.

    I think much of the squeamishness of honoring a chosen lineage comes from the idea that if one line is blessed it inherently means that another line is cursed, and that thinking goes immediately to our history of blacks and the priesthood. It needn’t, though. It may very well be that everybody is equally loved and blessed by God, but that for His purposes the responsibilities of the priesthood are laid on one particular line — for which everyone is eligible if they seek that blessing and responsibility anyway.

    I’ve got no problem with Abrahamic lineage and look forward to teaching this Sunday about the rights and responsibilities we have by living to be worthy heirs to the Abrahamic covenant.

  3. Thus my contention in an earlier discussion that we not only have connections to the Old Testament, despite all the hard-to-understand bits, but are more an Old Testament church than we think, despite all the lip service to the “higher law” of the New Testament. At least culturally I think it’s so. Obviously in official publications there’s still some unresolved tension.

  4. I’m with Ardis, here. The current understanding is that lineage from Abraham is essential, but adoptive lineage is just as workable as literal lineage. Since that doesn’t lock anybody out, you could say that, as a practical matter, it doesn’t matter. But there’s a gap between that and saying that it doesn’t matter at all that I don’t think is supportable.

    What I saw in the “rocks” comment was a slap at the idea that being literal descendants of Abraham didn’t make the Jews as special as they thought, and certainly didn’t save them all by itself. Not a dismissal of the importance of lineage, but putting it into a bit of a context where its importance doesn’t overwhelm everything else.

    I also think we need to be careful in assuming that all literal lineage means is a contribution of DNA. In general, I think we need to exercise a little bit of humility when we start believing that we have a firm grasp on everything that’s important about anything. God has a firm grasp on everything that’s important about everything, and hubris is a danger we should strive to avoid.

  5. I’ve always understood lineage as described by Ardis and Blain, though I can appreciate why Dave and others may consider any concept of a chosen people to be worrisome and subject to abuse.

  6. Dave, I have to agree with Ardis on this one. Linage does seem to play a role. Joseph Smith said the blood of Ephraim was concentrated in northern Europe and particularly in the British Isles. (Modern linguistics seems to back this up with the discovery of a Semitic or “Hebrew Vowel Shift” in the proto-Germanic language of northern Europe.) Looking at the demographics of current church member’s ancestry you’ll find that most coverts are from England, northern Germany and Scandinavia. This is despite concerted efforts in the rest of Europe. Not that their aren’t many faithful French members of the Church, but Paris still doesn’t have a temple. Why is that? Apparently, linage does have an influence, however minor, on whether one is more apt to accept the gospel.

    I don’t think actual DNA is really crucial, it is more metaphoric than that. Think about the Temple Endowment and the importance of being sealed to our families, our parents and their parents a so on. I don’t pretend to understand all the reasons why all that is necessary, but it might be a little dangerous to second guess who we accept as God’s chosen leaders and what they say, even if it was said in a less-enlightened 1923.

  7. I have a hard time believing that tiny bit of your DNA from an ancestor who lived 3500 years ago makes you more likely to join the church.

    Literal descent is not the same as having a “bit of DNA” from an ancestor. 3000 years ago you have a lot more slots on your pedigree chart than you have genes. It is entirely possible to have many distant ancestors from which you received no genetic inheritance at all.

    In any case moderen genetic research has shown that if a man who lived 3500 years ago had descendants and his line did not die out the vast majority of persons who live on the earth at present would have that man as at least one of our ancestors if we could trace back our pedigree back to 1500 B.C. or so.

    It’s not genetic research, it’s simulation modeling. Nonetheless, it’s very convincing. If Abraham was a real person, then it’s virtually certain that every single living person with any Asian, African, or European ancestry at all is a literal descendant of Abraham.

    So that raises the question: why is it supposed to be so special to be a descendant of Abraham if everybody already is?

  8. By the way, in the “rocks” example quoted above, he still said that God could raise up the rocks to be of “Abraham’s seed.” Apparently, it is still important to be of Abraham’s seed. This would be as opposed to Hamurabbi’s seed or Alexander the Great’s seed. It think it’s symbolic. It is a rejection of the world’s values in exchange for inclusion in a category or family of God’s choosing. For true Gentiles, say a Japanese person, this would need to include a rejection of some other cultural identity to become a member of Abraham’s family and all the doctrine, philosophies and world concepts that entails. A bit harder of an adjustment for them possibly, but certainly not impossible—just look at the Church in Korea.

  9. John: Paul was a chosen leader too, so it’s hard just to ignore him on the subject. And I’m not sure blood explains northern Europeans, especially since most Mormons in the near future will not be of northern European descent.

  10. So that raises the question: why is it supposed to be so special to be a descendant of Abraham if everybody already is?

    Not everybody who is a descendant of Abraham knows of that descent, or lives worthy of it, or claims the rights and responsibilities of the covenant. The “specialness” is as meaningless to most people as it was to Esau. It may be “be so special” to Abraham to have a numberless posterity, but it’s valuable to the descendants only when we recognize it, claim the covenant, and fulfill our part in it.

  11. Lineage doesn’t mean much to me on a practical basis.

    I would also accept that we are all related to Abraham, but in reality, we are all also likely related to EVERYONE who was alive at the time and who had descendants. Mathematically, we have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, etc. Going back not too many generations in that fashion would mean that we would quickly get into a trillion ancestors. This obviously can’t be possible because of interrelations and mixing over time.

    A number of mathematical models exist for looking at this, but it is fairly clear that past 1000-2000 years, we are essentially related to EVERYONE who was on the earth at that time. It therefore isn’t a stretch to say we are all Abraham’s descendants, as it is nearly a mathematical certainty. But we are equally related to everyone else from Abraham’s time.

    There are many articles on this. For one see:

  12. A shout out to wondering and mike s for describing modern genetic and mathematical research which shows that it is very likely that every person alive on the earth today is probably a descendant of Abraham. They said what I wanted to say ,only better and with better documentation.

  13. Jesus told the Pharisees essentially “if you were the children of Abraham you would do his works.” We know they were, genetically, Abraham’s children. But Jesus makes one important distinction.

    We know that Abraham was promised that through his seed all the nations of the earth will blessed. So actual lineage is obviously important. Those who are literal descendants have a responsibility and an obligation to serve mankind in the capacity God expects of them. Those not of his lineage can lay hold to the same blessings and responsibilities by being adopted/grafted in through acceptance of the gospel.

    Through wickedness and rejection of the Word, we lose our place and are no longer counted as Abraham’s seed, as Christ made clear to the Jews. So actual lineage only takes one so far.

    It’s true that someone’s genes doesn’t make them any better or worse in the sight of God, but it’s important to remember that we lived and exercised free agency before we came to this earth. And we know that some were more valiant than others. God decides where and in what circumstances we are to be born into and I believe that He places certain spirits in certain lineages with certain responsibilities. The blessings and promises made to Abraham and his seed are wonderful. But where much is given, much is required. Whether they live up to their missions/responsibilities is up to them.

    That’s how I see it, and I see nothing in Joseph Fielding Smith’s quote that goes against any of that or that bothers me.

  14. And I like John’s explanation in #9- there is definitely a symbolic measure to it all–the rejection of certain identities in order to join the family of Abraham and lay hold of the blessings therein.

  15. Dave obviously doesn’t understand the Abrahamic promise and blessing. He makes an argument that simply doesn’t exist. The gospel is all about lineage, ancestry, family etc. So why would it bother when a prophet of God makes a true statement concerning the lineage of members of Fathers Earthly Kingdom?

  16. If you reject the importance of lineage, then the prophesies in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon aren’t going to come true. How can there be a gathering of Israel if “Israel” is a spurious, unenlightened concept?

    The way I see it, Abraham’s name is a type of Jesus’ name. It’s the refuge we run to and the identity we choose to adopt. Here’s an example of this mentality:

    “the children of Amulon…were displeased with the conduct of their fathers, and they would no longer be called by the names of their fathers, therefore they took upon themselves the name of Nephi, that they might be called the children of Nephi and be numbered among those who were called Nephites.” (Mosiah 25:2)

    These people rejected their wicked biological fathers and chose to become “children” of Nephi. Why? For protection, for a place in the universe, for a better future. We can’t have those things if we opt to be in a different family than Abraham’s or Christ’s.

    On a side note, Dave, how do you view the revelation Joseph Smith received allowing for a legal descendant of Aaron to assume the office of bishop without requiring Melchizedek priesthood?

  17. Joseph Fielding Smith has been quoted as believing that the people of Japan and Korea showed evidence of being among the branches of Israel that were described in Jacob 5 as being planted in a distant corner of the vineyard. It seems to me that the concept of lineage through Israel has been used, NOT to discourage missionary work among unfamiliar nations, but to ENCOURAGE it, by asserting that there is a common heritage that will come to the fore as a “familiar spirit” is evoked by the workds of restored scripture like the Book of Mormon. After all, the Book of Mormon asserts at the same time that it is teaching that God will fulfill his covenants with Israel, even while he is the God of the whole earth! It is through Israel as an instrument that his blessings to the earth are brought forth. The vision to Peter sent him to the Gentiles, but it was Peter, a Jew, who went and baptized and confirmed and ordained them.

    The promises made to the descendants of Lehi are explicit in the Book of Mormon, as a subset of the promises to Israel. The LDS have always felt it incumbent on them to help fulfill those promises, not to look down on those descendants, but to see them as having potential. Compared to the negative attitude of most Americans to the Indians, I think that is a vast improvement.

    Yes, there are descendants of Abraham all over the place. A recent analysis of DNA in Spain found that 25% of the men sampled have the Cohen marker on the Y chromosome indicating descent from the tribe of Levi, the same gene that confirms that east Africans who claimed ancient Jewish ancestry were correct. Our mixed heritage should remind us that most modern “races” are constructs that do not relate to true ancestry.

    I find the few, procrustean racial categories used in modern government affirmative action programs, that make or break a person’s education or career advancement based on inaccurate categories of race, far more troublesome and false than the concept of shared Abrahamic ancestry that calls us to exemplary behavior and righteousness.

  18. I don’t see how there could be a single person alive today who is a literal direct descendant of Ephraim, who is not ALSO descended from all the other sons of Jacob/Joseph. Given that, I’m not sure what the JFS statement is even supposed to mean. Maybe he’s talking about patrilineal descent only?

  19. I would be careful about trying to tie specific “lineages” to specific geographical areas. We need to be careful to interpret things making them what we want to see. Many people talk about the “blood of Israel” in Scandinavia, etc. in the early days of the Church all joining, and there’s none left now so the work is slower, etc. In reality, it’s all the same “blood” as there is now. Perhaps it’s just that before the discovery of oil, Scandinavia was a dirt-poor area. People were literally starving. Joining the Church was a way to get some help, to emigrate to America, etc. Nowdays, Scandinavia has among the highest standard of living in the world. And our success in missionary work tends to be among the lower socioeconomic areas of the world. Perhaps it isn’t anything more than that.

    I would also be careful quoting too many DNA studies to prove our interpretation of the blood of Israel, etc. It’s beyond the point of this post and I don’t want to threadjack, but if you truly study genetic analysis, etc., there are probably 1000 studies that contradict many of our basic LDS teachings for every one that might be seen through an LDS lens.

  20. I agree that the concept as often expressed is indeed troubling. The problem is the following:

    1) Parent – child relationships have eternal significance
    2) Apply transitively
    3) Ancestor – child relationships have eternal significance
    4) In some sense, lineage has some sort of eternal significance

    (if hardly the punish the children for the sins of the fathers unto the nth generation sense that is occasionally suggested)

    Of course, alternatively we could just throw out most of the Old Testament, and much of the other standard works, and claim that God doesn’t delegate, deal with, or think of his children on a tribal / national / familial basis, ever.

  21. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    RTS (#18), I agree that “most modern ‘races’ are constructs that do not relate to true ancestry.” That certainly complicates the task of those who want to give explanatory power to tribal or racial (“blood of Israel”) categories. It’s debatable whether the categories even exist.

    Thaddeus (#17), I don’t know that “literal descendant of Aaron” (as the term is used in D&C 68:15-21) really has an operational definition, by which I mean an objective definition that would allow you or I or anyone else to put a given individual in that category. D&C 68:21 actually takes a stab at a definition, offering two options: (1) A man “may claim [his] anointing if at anytime [he] can prove [his] lineage.” But, realistically, how is a candidate going to prove a lineage back to Aaron? What documents would establish the fact of such ancestry? (2) A man may “ascertain it by revelation from the Lord under the hands of the above named [First] Presidency [of the Melchizedek Priesthood].” So if the First Presidency designated someone to be a literal descendant of Aaron, that might qualify that candidate for whatever office in the modern church corresponds to the office of bishop as discussed in D&C 68 (things have changed a bit since 1831). It’s not clear such a designation would truly establish real-world ancestry or would simply be a name or title bestowed on an individual much like other priesthood offices. We ordain 14-year-olds to be Teachers but that doesn’t mean they are, functionally, teachers.

    But even if such a designation were to occur, I’m sure the procedure to be followed thereafter would be, first, to issue a calling to a position, if appropriate; second, an interview for worthiness; and third, ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood in order to preside in whatever leadership calling the individual was called to. In other words (long story, I know), even being deemed a literal descendant of Aaron by the First Presidency really wouldn’t mean anything. That and a buck buys you a Diet Pepsi. Okay, I suppose you’d get your picture in the Church News or something.

  22. I’ve always looked at this much like Ardis.

    I have a hard time believing that tiny bit of your DNA from an ancestor who lived 3500 years ago makes you more likely to join the church.

    I’ve never thought of it like that. I’ve always thought it a pronouncement, not a genetic tendency. In other words there is SOME line that is going to have more members. And God probably knows which lint it is.

    Becoming an heir to the blessings of Abraham has much more to do with a voluntary acceptance of the Gospel of Christ, receiving the necessary ordinances and living a Christlike life than being a physical descendant of Abraham.

    But isn’t that also the only requirement to being part of that lineage? I’m adopted. Who knows what my birth blood line is. But it doesn’t matter. I’m sealed, so I’m part of the family.

  23. Dave, I agree that for practical and epistemological reasons the Church is not likely to ever make formal lineage based distinctions again, certainly not ones as horrifying as those that were made in the past. The more interesting question is “are there family organizations in heaven?”

    Some Church leaders have claimed that the social organization in heaven is on a familial basis. In heaven, must there be zoning rules so that no one can live within a mile of their grandparents?

    Is God going to erase all national, cultural, and familial affiliations? If not, why would they go away? If family associations aren’t important, why don’t we quit genealogy and family history right now? Perhaps rename the family history department the “deceased persons discovery department” instead.

  24. I am having trouble understanding what the difference is that lineage makes in the eternal scheme of things or in the present. Unless it is purely a symbolic concept.

    Where a person ends up in the hereafter is based on faith and acceptance of Jesus–it is not based on literal lineage. In this life, lineage become is tautological–if a person is a member of the Church, he or she is of Abraham, regardless of physical lineage. And vice versa.

    I think in JFS’ time (and Joseph Smith’s) that most people did not understand that all people today (and in the 1800s, for that matter) are (and were) descendants of Abraham. (Of course the priesthood and temple lineage/race ban also ignored that all people alive are descendants of Cain.) In other words, those concepts were informed by erroneous ideas about “purity” of lineage (or nonlineage) to Biblical times.

  25. Where a person ends up in the hereafter is based on faith and acceptance of Jesus

    For certain meanings of “where”, absolutely. The idea that eternal families means that no one will live near their parents, nor bear any special obligation for their children strikes me as odd though.

  26. For the record, modern linguistics does not support the notion of Semitic influence in Germanic. There have been suggestions of one kind or another made for several centuries, occasionally by respectable scholars. The suggestions are at best interesting and fun to think about, at worst the products of ill-informed cranks. The evidence is slim, and none of the suggested connections is more than a fringe theory.

    Dave, I like your post. It seems to me that ‘lineage’ is the common denominator of every major Mormon controversy: JS III and RLDS legitimacy, DNA, vicarious baptism, priesthood denial, Book of Abraham…am I missing any? It would be a shame to give up something that controversial, not to mention something that links us to the thought of Joseph Smith and other early Mormons, and I’m sympathetic to Ardis’s account of the significance of lineage. But I think you’re right that there are a host of problematic things that one can do with the idea of lineage.

  27. I think the author has things backwards. It is not lineage that saves us, but becoming one very large extended family is part of our exaltation. Thus we have a drive to seal the ourselves and everyone in between all the way back to Adam and Eve. The only purpose of this is to be a united family, seal together, by adoption or literal lineage.

    It is not what we are born with, it is spiritually about who we are.

    If lineage does not matter, then neither does sealings to parents and children, or temple work, or genealogy.

  28. Good post. I agree that lineage does not matter. What matters is one accepting Christ and following him. I also find it interesting that people quote Jesus as insinuating that lineage matters, ie lineage of abraham, when it looks more like hes saying that lineage of abraham means being like him, doing his works. in other words, to be a child of abraham is to do his works not have some dna.

    This is the same message in matt 5. How are you a child of God? not dna, but by acting a certain way. Jesus dismantles ideas of kinship, citizenship, and even family and teaches that the new family, the holy people is one of believers not lineage.

    I get why we hold onto the idea of lineage, especially as LDS patriarchal blessings, priesthood, etc) but does anyone seriously believe that your dna makes you better one bit in spiritual terms?

  29. Forget DNA. DNA has nothing to do with it. Adoption is every bit as valid as being born into it. It was even that way in the Old Testament, with women like Ruth and Rahab being shown as examples of righteousness.

    We can dismiss lineage all we like, yet still we are taught that unless we complete a united chain of sealing back to Adam, the earth will be cursed.

  30. Both of the Gospel Principles passages cited in the original post are word for word the same in previous editions.

    The manual has been around for more than three decades and the target audience all along has been investigators and new members, plus for the next two years it will be used by all adults in the Church. Considering its age and current use, it is highly likely that the current First Presidency and Twelve have all read the cited passages at least once. Thus, even if informally, they have approved the current manual. But in reality, the new edition received formal approval in May 2007.

    Including the concept of lineage was not a mistake.

    But what really surprises me about this post is that my favorite comments are Ardis Parshall’s #3 and #11. Thanks, Ardis. Well said.

  31. Thanks for the comment, R. Gary. As I read the current status of things (per the last two quotes in the post), it is the senior leadership that is moving forward to a more universalist doctrine of salvation. Resistance to change and continuing allegiance to now-disfavored doctrines seems to come from the bureaucracy and from us (the general membership), not from senior leaders.

    What I find disturbing is that the manuals continue to quote dead prophets over living ones, seemingly granting to Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie some sort of elevated normative status denied to other prophets and apostles. There is no warrant for this in LDS doctrine. This seems like the bureaucracy subverting the leadership, which is not how things should happen. I sustain General Authorities, not bureaucrats or volunteers who work on curriculum committees or correlation squads.

  32. Maybe the reason there are more quotes of JFS and McConkie is that they were willing to stick their necks out in print on more controversial topics, even when the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve did not endorse their views, or even specifically endorsed countervailing assertions, such as James E. Talmage’s endorsement of “evolution” in a Tabernacle address that was published as a Church pamphlet as a counter to JFS’s book. I have in mind of course Mormon Doctrine and JFS’s writings about evolution and creation.

  33. Jonathan Green #27: For the record there is a lot of well-respected scholarly work done by recognized international linguists. I don’t know where you get your information that they are “cranks.” John McWortel of NPR fame and who holds a doctorate in linguistics, who has written a best-seller on language origins, and teaches at the Manhattan Institute states that there are simply too many coincidences of Semitic vowel usages and even similar root words between the proto-Germanic and proto-Semitic. These do not exist in any other Indo-European language family—only the Germanic. Even the sentence structure indicates Semitic influence. He is very careful not to jump to any concrete conclusions, but statically their can be no other explanation, it cannot be coincidence. He is even embarrassed to mention it, but it cannot be denied. He proposes a theory shared by most professional linguists who have studied this, that at some point a Semitic group sailed to the northern German coast (around Denmark) and interspersed among the proto-Germanic peoples there. Evidence now exists that the Phoenicians and others may have traveled much further than previously supposed. They may have even reached the coasts of Britain in ancient times. Certainly possible—they had more than adequate technology to do so.

    This does not prove anything, however. It’s just very interesting.

    Raymond #18: It is interesting that the Japanese national Shinto shrine that the Emperor has officially worshiped at for over two millennia now (according to tradition) bears a striking resemblance to Polynesian houses, both in construction materials, layout and dimensions. Even some of the symbols on it, which no one any longer knows the meanings of, are strikingly similar to Polynesian art. Spencer W. Kimball has said that a majority of Polynesians have Israelite linage through the Book of Mormon. Could this mean that the Japanese may have such a link through them?

    Again, this does not prove anything, however. It’s just very interesting.

  34. I agree with Dave on this one. The only way that I can personally make peace with this doctrine of lineage, particularly in light of Jesus’ statements from the NT, is that the “house of Israel” and the “family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” are purely spiritual constructs. If an individual (emphasis on the individual) makes Gospel covenants with the Lord, they are part of that spiritual body. A person who does not make such covenants is not. Therefore, there are no members of the house of Israel outside the Church, and no Gentiles in it. (Let’s leave aside the issue of the One True Church for now). Therefore, all membership in the house of Israel is purely by adoption, but does not mean anything in a strictly genetic sense.

    Thus, the idea of “believing blood” and Joseph Smith’s ideas about the Holy Spirit literally replacing the blood of Gentile converts with Israelite blood make no sense to me, except in terms of the eugenic philosophies that were prevalent at the time.

  35. What documents would establish the fact of such ancestry?

    There is a distinct caste in the Jewish community of literal descendants of Aaron called Kohanim. It isn’t just anyone who has Aaron as a common ancestor, it must be passed from father to son. Genetic studies have found this group exhibits a common marker on their genome: the Cohen Modal Haplotype (CMH). And contrary to the blanket statements that have been thrown around claiming that everyone is a descendant of everyone, CMH isn’t widespread.

    Regardless of the practicality of extending such a call, its very presence in the Doctrine and Covenants is a sign that Heavenly Father honors lineage-based covenants.

    Regarding salvation, the fact that He allows adoption and treats adopted children the same as biological children is a testament to His fairness.

  36. I’m adopted. At virtually no point in my life have I been treated any differently by any family member than I would have been treated had I the Bennett/Jenkins DNA. I’m perfectly fine with the idea that everyone who will be exalted either will be a literal descendant of Abraham (or whoever) or will be adopted into it. It’s a distinction without a difference.

    There are some practical ramifications, of course. All of my maternal uncles and aunts have had heart problems which they inherited from one or the other of my maternal grandparents (or both). I don’t have to worry about that, whereas I do have to worry about all the varied ailments I may have inherited from my birth parents. But spiritually, it doesn’t make any difference to me.

    Now, having said that, my mother once told me that she felt that when I was sealed to her, my “blood” was changed. That statement I found quite offensive because there was an implication (unintended, to be sure) that she would not have loved me as a son had I not gone through that transformation. It really hurt.

    I remember JFS responding to a Far Eastern correspondent (in Questions to Gospel Answers) who asked if he was a literal descendant of Abraham or an adopted one. He really wanted to know because he wanted to believe that he was a literal descendant of Abraham.

    The simple fact of the matter is that we carry a mind-set that being adopted is inferior to having a literal birthright. For the 19th century Saints, this meant that they could feel “special” because Abraham/Ephraim/whoever was their literal ancestor. And this is related to the reason that a lot of non-Mormons object to baptism for the dead. They see it as a statement that there is something “wrong” with their ancestors in God’s eyes that needs to be fixed. For many, Jews in particular, this is enormously offensive. It’s this attitude we must fight. We must love everybody. Period. God loves everybody and has made salvation possible for everybody. Period. Any formal requirements involved are accessible to everybody. Period.

    I don’t mind our talking about lineage so much, so long as we’re very clear that it makes no practical difference to us. Adoption is just as good as literal “blood” (whatever, indeed, that means). Literal Abrahamites are not inherently more likely to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ than non-Israelites as a result of their “blood.” But there are valid lessons. God is true to His promises to Abraham, and so He will be true to His promises to all of us. Salvation is a matter of what we do, not who we are. And all of us, Jew or Gentile, have to undergo a transformative process which only God can bring about before we are able to receive exaltation.

  37. Dave, pardon the threadjack, but I hardly ever get the chance to argue about Germanic historical linguistics.

    John Hamilton: I got my information on the way towards taking a doctoral exam covering Germanic historical linguistics. McWhorter’s argument is, as he admits, dependent on the work of Theo Vennemann. And McWhorter himself calls the evidence “tantalizing” and “suggestive” but the case itself “unsettled” (see here). Vennemann is an example of a scholar lining up the evidence for an interesting idea, and McWhorter’s book on English is an example of packaging that evidence for a non-scholarly audience. It’s interesting! It’s fun! But it’s nowhere close to the scholarly mainstream. Most professional linguists who have studied the issue do not accept Vennemann at face value. There really are intriguing things going on in proto-Germanic, but the evidence available is very, very slight.

  38. Lineage absolutely plays a part in our everyday life (or at least should ONCE WE KNOW IT). In the church we don’t honor people based on lineage, and nor should we, but the covenants and promises made to Abraham should be determining factors in our choices to marry, have children, recieve the priesthood, etc. Read Abraham again, you will see that the priesthood (the welding) is key to lineage, promises and covenants and blessings, not DNA…

    11 And I will abless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee; and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal.


  39. Thanks for invoking the wisdom of Armand Mauss. Bright guy.

    The Abrahamic covenant’s relationship to lineage should not be taken too literally. Whether the scriptural account of Abraham and his dealings with God actually hold up to be historically literal or not is not important. Furthermore there is no way to prove this either way. What IS important is the story, its illustration, and how it represents God’s dealings with man. What the Jews understood to mean religious privilege based on birth was challenged by Paul, as is made clear in Romans 4: 1-3, 9.

    1 What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?
    2 For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath bwhereof to glory; but not before God.
    3 For what saith the scripture? Abraham abelieved God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
    9 Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.

    I think that what Joseph Smith tried to do was reconcile the New and Old Testaments and to account for what appeared to be restrictions of the Old Testament that had been abrogated. The notion of grafting is unique to Mormonism, and it seems to do a good job of doctrinally accounting for blessings upon those not of Abrahamic lineage.

    Ardis is right that lineage was important for Abraham. Yet is this lineage physical or spiritual? I believe that authors of the Old Testament portray both types of lineage as important for him. But the LDS church really only emphasizes the importance of spiritual lineage. While physical lineage may have once been an issue, especially in relation to blacks and the priesthood, (as evidenced by apostle Mark E. Peterson’s discourse on race, it no longer really matters, at least not on the administrative level. Now blacks can marry whites in the temple without administrative obstacles. And the notion that blacks somehow followed Cain, or that they were not as worthy in the preexistence, seems to be gradually disappearing in Mormon discourse, thankfully.

  40. Jonathan Green #39: Yeah, but it is still “tantalizing.” That’s good enough for me to at least mention it. There seems to be good arguments either way. I must bow to you professionals here, I’m obviously out of my league. But, the pros don’t seem to simply dismiss it out of hand. It’s not like anyone is proposing space aliens built the pyramids or anything. There is some evidence of funky stuff going on in those early Germanic tribes.

    Certainly no proof. Just slightly more plausible than mere chance (regardless of DavidH’s posted link, which is interesting).

    Sorry for straying too far off topic here. Got a wandering mind. Must be those heathen Gentile genes of mine. :)

  41. OK, I couldn’t help but respond to Comment #7. I think that nineteenth century socioeconomic and political factors explain early conversions much more than lineage. If lineage explains this, why didn’t the Ashkenazi Jews scattered throughout Europe convert en masse to Mormonism?

    On the Semitic influence on Germanic languages: extremely minimal, if not insignificant, at least to support the claim that the Germanic peoples were heavily infiltrated by the Semites. As a student of foreign language and etymology, I believe there just really needs to be more there for there to be a significant connection. Now there are undoubtedly Semitic words that the Germanic languages may have acquired through commerce and other interactive activity, but this pales in comparison with the number Arabic loan words in many of the African languages, even those whose speakers are not predominantly Muslim (e.g. Yoruba in Nigeria).

  42. Brad Dennis (41),

    Thanks for the comment. I think we would do well to at least be open-minded to the idea that a lot of the Genesis stories might be inspired parables rather than literal history.

  43. Lineage, at least at the distances under discussion here (descent from a person who lived circa 3,000 years ago), is just as problematic a concept biologically/genetically as it is soteriologically. In the first place, the actual percentage of genes we inherit from an ancestor is inversely proportional to how many generations back they fall in our family tree. The human genome contains roughly 20,000 genes. Go back 20 generations and, regardless of genetic similarity or dissimilarity, you are no more genetically related (in the sense of sharing genes that passed through a single line) to your ancestors than you are to any other randomly selected human being. A second, and related point, dealing with population genetics and the sheer arithmetic of sexual reproduction, is that if someone who lived 3,000 years ago has any surviving offspring today (and there’s a good chance that he or she does not), then all persons alive today are his/her seed.

    This doesn’t fit at all with the notion that there are some people alive today who belong to a certain ancient lineage (privileged, cursed, whatever) and others who don’t. It does, however, fit nicely with the notions of lineage and descent articulated by Ardis and others here. Lineage, as a meaningful category of personhood, is not a matter of biology or genealogy but of awareness, birthright, etc. — i.e. something which we all share biologically but only some of us acknowledge and/or live up to.

  44. Dave, I did a search at for two words: Abraham and lineage (click here to view the results). There’s a lot of interesting stuff, including living apostles in recent years discussing lineage. But one item in particular caught my attention: Six months after he gave the talk you quote, President James E. Faust talked specifically about lineage and quoted the very Joseph Fielding Smith passage you led off with. Dave, I’m just not seeing the senior leadership move away from what you found in the Sunday School and Gospel Doctrine manuals.

  45. Brad is correct. Recent genetics also suggests that after about 2000 years genetic convergence is such that we have the same ancestor set that far back. If Abraham is your ancestor he’s everyone on Earth’s ancestor. And theirs are yours. Modern genetics has forever set aside the idea of exclusive linages as a biological notion.

  46. Adoption to into the covenant is a precedent that has been set for at least two thousand years, so I don’t know why anyone would be concerned about the nature of their relationship to Abraham, for example.

    A better question is the nature of one’s relationship with ones tenth great grand father or grand mother vs. any other person alive three or four centuries ago. You either have some special bond with your own grandparents or you don’t. Is it really better to have a social pudding instead of a social fabric?

    Modern genetics has forever set aside the idea of exclusive linages as a biological notion.

    I seriously doubt anyone believed in exclusive lineages in Abraham’s time either. Someone way back when invented the idea of patrilineal descent for a reason – perhaps it was convenient.

  47. My husband is Jewish and is a Levite. It’s “known” because it is passed from father to son, family to family. I’m a convert to the Church and my lineage is Ephraim–I have English and Italian heritage. As I understand it we are assigned to a lineage based on our talents and abilities–each of the twelve tribes has a particular mission or blessing they were given to perform. The Lord also organizes by either genetic or spiritual lineages. He’s orderly. The gospel first went to the Jews, not to the Gentiles. He didn’t take it to everyone everywhere at first. Why don’t the Jews now join the Church in droves since they are the blood of Israel? Because it’s not their time. My husband and I have a daughter. We wondered what her lineage would be–it’s Ephraim. Why?
    Because that’s where she’s needed. Yes, if she has sons, they can be a bishop without having to have counselors (which no man in his right mind would want to do!)

  48. P.S. Do we think either Judah or Ephraim have one-up on the other in terms of valiant people? No. There are amazing spirits in both as well as those who aren’t. No Christian can look at the face of my husband’s female rabbi and not see Christ on her countenance. I’m convinced that some spirits were willing to come to earth and have a longer wait to accept the gospel than others. It may be because they were already way ahead of the rest of us. I’m sure we’ve all known
    people born into the Church who wouldn’t have stood a chance returning to Heavenly Father unless they were born into the Church.

  49. Pardon me again–what I meant to say is that my pat. blessing says that I was willing to accept the assignment of being born into a family of which I’d be the only member of the church. I had understood I could help my family join one day.

  50. Brad Kramer and SteveP, what of inbreeding? We all have shoots of our ancestry that go off to every nook of the planet, but that doesn’t change the larger factor that for millennia our ancestors mostly mated with not-far-distant cousins. Many, many even married first cousins, such as Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood, or the parents of Sewell Wright, a founding father of population genetics.

    Those with a taste for such things can take a look at my “Father’s Day Special: Relatedness of Abraham and the Children of Israel.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all married close relatives.

  51. MSG, if we are assigned to a tribe lineage because of “our talents and abilities,” then it really has nothing to do with bloodlines, genetics, etc. And if that is true, then why would your daughter’s hypothetical sons automatically be from the tribe of Levi? Perhaps their talents and abilities will make them Ephraimites. I think there is a false equivalence being posited here between legitimate genealogy (which traces your husband’s ancestors historically to the Levites) and the kind of spiritual adoption-assignment genealogy being practiced in the Church.

    As an aside, according to D&C 68:16, only the firstborn of the sons of Aaron have a right to the bishopric, not any Levite. Your husband may or may not have this level of detail regarding his ancestors.

  52. R. Gary (#46), I’ll certainly admit there is likely a range of opinion on the topic among senior LDS leaders, although they do their best to suppress such differences in public discourse. I believe it is fair to say the trend is moving away from lineage talk and toward talk of universal salvation, but only time will tell.

    Steve P., Brad, and AHL Duke, I agree that after dozens of generations everyone likely shares in any lineage (taking the term “lineage” to mean tracing back to some actual distant ancestor of an earlier era). This makes it tough to understand just what lineage discussions are talking about in a real-world sense. Here’s an interesting passage from a different talk by Elder Faust, delivered at a BYU devotional in 1980 but reprinted in the New Era in 2005:

    Since families are of mixed lineage, it occasionally happens that members of the same family have blessings declaring them to be of different lineage. There has been an intermixture of the tribes one with another. One child may be of Ephraim, another in the same family of Manasseh, Judah, or one of the other tribes. The blood of one tribe, therefore, may be dominant in one child and the blood of another tribe dominant in another child, so children from the same parents could belong to different tribes.

    This quote illustrates how retaining the lineage concept and trying to make it fit in the real world can make even a sympathetic speaker sound almost incoherent. Talking about this or that lineage being dominant in this or that child in a single family reduces the lineage doctrine to just a form of personality typing. One might as well administer an MBTI personality test in place of patriarchal blessings and tell our teenagers they are INTJ or ESTP or whatever. It would make only slightly less sense to claim that some children fall under the sign of Aquarius while others fall under the sign of Taurus and attribute some sort of divine influence or destiny to that fact.

    Better to leave astrology, personality typing, and lineage behind: the fault (and the path of our future) is not in our stars or our personality type or our lineage, it is in ourselves. Instead, we should all adopt the favored LDS perspective on life and salvation under which we are all children of God, God is no respecter of persons or tribes or lineages (confirmed by modern revelation in 1978), and salvation comes by faith and obedience to the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the administration of which is presently vouchsafed to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its authorized apostolic leadership. Not a very radical suggestion, that.

  53. I am good with the current understanding of lineage. I think that to reject the importance of lineage is to reject BOM and OT prophets and really important parts of the restoration regarding the gathering of Isreal. Not to mention promises to the Jews that are currently being fulfilled. Check out D&C 86

    “8 Therefore, thus saith the Lord unto you, with whom the priesthood hath continued through the lineage of your fathers—
    9 For ye are lawful heirs, according to the flesh, and have been hid from the world with Christ in God—
    10 Therefore your life and the priesthood have remained, and must needs remain through you and your lineage until the brestoration of all things spoken by the mouths of all the holy prophets since the world began.
    11 Therefore, blessed are ye if ye continue in my goodness, a light unto the Gentiles, and through this priesthood, a savior unto my people Israel. The Lord hath said it. Amen.”

    I am not prepared to throw out parts of the D&C also.

    If you have been around the bloggernaccle as long as I have you have seen this type of post decrying lineage over and over again.

  54. You’re right, bbell. The fact that you can point to verses that reinforce ideas you already hold and that others have written similar posts are perfectly good reasons for ignoring and casually dismissing the arguments made in this post and subsequent comments.

  55. Dave, I agree with your take on that Faust quote. That sort of language makes the concept of lineage meaningless in terms of real genetics and ancestry.

    Part of the crux of the matter for me is how does my lineage (whether or not you believe that the lineage is natural or by adoption) affect what is expected of me by the Lord and by the Church? As far as I can see, it does not (with the possible exception of a Levite direct descendant of Aaron). Ephraimite lineage seems to have mattered a great deal more in the early days of the Church, when the members were mostly white Europeans. As I said in my first comment, this kind of obsession with lineage smacks of eugenics, which has been a problem among white Europeans (and their descendants) on both sides of the Atlantic, from shortly after Joseph Smith’s time to the present. But now, if my daughter is told that she is from the tribe of Reuben (both my wife and I are Ephraimites), what does that say about her? Absolutely nothing. She is still expected to live by the same commandments, she can still serve a mission, get married in the temple, etc. etc. And if these lineages are somehow assigned by personality type (which seems to be a good analogy) what exactly is a “Reubenesque” personality? What are the special talents or abilities associated with that tribe, or any other for that matter?

  56. I just don’t understand how you can make sense of Isaiah or most other Old Testament prophesies without an understanding of the Abrahamic covenant. Or take 1 Nephi 15:12-18, for example. How does this jive with the concept that lineage is as steeped in superstition as the zodiac? Do you reject Lehi as a prophet?

  57. I don’t think that any correlation can be drawn between the lineages in patriarchal blessings and actual genealogy or personality traits. The lineages in the patriarchal blessings can probably be best understood as part of the rich ritualistic tradition of Mormonism, which can be appreciated in its own right. Once we try to explain the physical dimensions of the blessing, it almost seems to reduce its ritualistic and spiritual value. The blessing is not designed to accurately identify our blood line to a specific tribe, nor is it designed to accurately predict our future, whether we live up to its conditions or not. Instead it is designed to instill within us a sense of identity–as if we are part of the house of Israel–and a sense of mission, calling us to fulfill the basic aims of the church; e.g. marry in the temple, build a successful future, become a leader in the church, convert people to the church, etc.

    So many Mormons have tried to figure out which people are of which tribe, and to where the tribes migrated by playing connect the dots with patriarchal blessings. But ultimately this is of little avail, and the end result is all just speculation. If we want to understand the origins of lineage, race, ethnicity, etc., we are better off studying genetics, identity politics, linguistics, and history.

  58. Thaddeus, the Abrahamic covenant is to be understood literarily and not literally. Literature is not always written to exactly reflect reality. But it is written to explain morals, instill identities, and teach us lessons. Prophecies are not superstition, but they may not describe snapshot events. Instead they talk about cycles. Dallin H. Oaks talks of prophecies as having multiple meanings and multiple fulfillments. After all prophecy is meaningless without a person who at some point declares its fulfillment.

  59. Whoa, hold up there Thad. First of all, nobody is talking about throwing out the Abrahamic covenant. However, I would emphasize that the blessings of that covenant are available to all those who are willing to make that covenant and abide by its terms, regardless of lineage.

    Also, I think that in Lehi and Nephi’s day, it probably still made some sense to speak of tribal lineages in terms of actual genealogy. He wrote and spoke according to his own understanding. Lehi and Nephi could potentially trace ancestry back to their tribe. But the same concepts make little sense in our own day, especially in light of quotes like the one in #54 from Elder Faust, where bloodlines and lineages have become so mixed and attenuated. I fail to see how the scripture you linked to supports your view. Lehi is talking about the Gentiles grafting in the remnant of the Lehite seed into the true olive tree, being the Gospel. So the only lineage concepts present here are the “Gentiles,” the “house of Israel” and the “remnant of our seed.” In some limited sense, you might be able to speak of the native inhabitants of the American continents as the remnant of Lehi’s seed (although even the Church has backed away from that view in the last 2 or 3 years). But the house of Israel in our day is a purely spiritual concept, and everybody joins by adoption (i.e. by making and keeping covenants with our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ). Most members of the (a)historical house of Israel (which is the one that Lehi is referring to) are not members of that spiritual house of Israel. But a great many Gentiles (those not tracing lineage back to any of the Twelve tribes) are. Will Lehi’s prophecy be fulfilled? I think it is fulfilled every day, as people gain testimonies and make covenants. But I do not believe it has anything to do with seeking out specific individuals with a special bloodline to join the Church.

  60. If Dave’s argument is correct, then why couch the grafting in terms of lineage at all? Lehi could have said,

    “14 And at that day shall the remnant of our seed know that they are of the house of Israel, and that they are the covenant people of the Lord; and then shall they know and come to the knowledge of their forefathers, and also to the knowledge of the gospel of their Redeemer, which was ministered unto their fathers by him; wherefore, they shall come to the knowledge of their Redeemer and the very points of his doctrine, that they may know how to come unto him and be saved.”

    Why does Lehi think it’s important for his descendants to know they belong to the house of Israel?

  61. Lehi (like all prophets both ancient and modern) spoke and wrote according to his own understanding, which was limited by multiple circumstances of time, place, and background. Lehi, having grown up among the Jews, believed that lineage was an important concept and was tied to his “chosenness” as a part of the historical house of Israel. So that’s what he said. It turns out that, in light of the fullness of the Gospel, lineage is not nearly so important.

  62. Thaddeus (Comment #62), this all comes back to the question of identity. The Book of Mormon narrative heavily emphasizes identifying heritage with the hope that it will have some value in maintaining belief and morals. We are to think of ourselves as having such heritage in a spiritual sense, even if we do not literally. The Abrahamic covenant derives its importance from the fact that it has been regarded as important by the Jews and by other Christians (although to a lesser extent). Therefore we can’t just ignore it when we talk about the scriptures. It must be addressed, but this is not because it matters in any physical sense, only doctrinal.

    One more thought about why the Abrahamic covenant is important. The human tendency is to seek the past to find identities. For instance this is manifest by a Navajo who is born into a Christian English-speaking household who adopts the traditional Navajo religious practices and language. Sometimes identities are imposed on other peoples, such as in Turkey during the 1940s when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the leader of Turkey, insisted that the Kurds were ‘mountain Turks,’ even though their language and ethnic identity was drastically different from Turkish. If we must dig into the past to construct our identities, then the Abrahamic covenant, as interpreted by the Mormon church, provides a noble identity. In theory it is designed to bind the human race together regardless of race, culture, and ethnicity.

  63. AHL Duke–My husband is the first son of a first son, etc.–yes, they know that and are that exact in their details because it was important to them. And it does have to do with being a direct descendent of Aaron. BTW– traditionally one is not considered Jewish unless their mother was.

    I know of another LDS male convert who was Jewish and he knew he was a Levite and yes, his pat. blessing concurred and it specifically said Levi and not Judah. He’s never been called to be a bishop so it certainly doesn’t give him the right to “reign” his entire ward for as long as he lives. Many are called and few are chosen–no matter what their lineage is. Lineage, as I have understood it, has its roots in who we were in the premortal world. But it is no indicator of one’s righteous stance in this life. It gives us an inkling of who we were once so that we have identity and may know what we are capable of in this life.

    I don’t know that two Ephraimites would have a “Reubenesque”. I would think most who are born into the Church are of Ephraim and Manasseh
    because the Church needs those who are of Ephraim. Pres. Faust was saying what happens with those of mixed lineage.

    Prior to the 12 tribes being scattered, Israel(Jacob) gave them a patriarchal blessing telling them what would be their destiny as a people through the ages that were to come. I think that’s why people are always trying to determine today in what nation can be found a particular tribe. I don’t know offhand what Reubens’ blessings were and are but since they are scriptural, one day that will be known if it isn’t already.

    Personally, I don’t think we will know lots of things until after the second coming. But it doesn’t mean that if I don’t understand them now that I’ll never understand them.

    If lineage doesn’t matter anymore to the extent it once did, then
    why is the restored Church found within the tribe of Ephraim and not Reuben?
    Because of what the mission of Ephraim is.

    Why is Judah so intact in modern day? It’s not a coincidence. They have a big part to play as a tribe in these last days. Their mission wasn’t just in the beginning of times.

    Lineage seems to me to be both physical and spiritual–much the way “Zion” is also both.

  64. The lineage of Ephraim is a stout, proud bunch, as evidenced in these posts. (kidding, kidding)

    Truth be, I am astonished (yes, I’m serious) that the idea of lineage is not taken literally by the writer of this post and many postees. One might as well bag everything unusual we believe in this Church. I take it on faith that there is much yet of futurity that relates to tribe and lineage that is of great import. This post seems dismissive and revisionist, but I believe in a literal gathering of tribes, and a literal understanding of Abraham’s seed, however involved that may be. Read the Old Testament — the story of Joseph especially — it’s all there. I feel more connected to it, in fact, because I believe there is something literal in all of it. Anything else seems faithless to me.

  65. MSG, I think I disagree with these statements most of all:

    “I would think most who are born into the Church are of Ephraim and Manasseh because the Church needs those who are of Ephraim.”
    “If lineage doesn’t matter anymore to the extent it once did, then
    why is the restored Church found within the tribe of Ephraim and not Reuben? Because of what the mission of Ephraim is.”

    I think we are starting from completely different assumptions. You are assuming that most members of the Church are in some way (genetically, spiritually?) of the tribe of Ephraim BEFORE they join the Church or before they are born. If we insist that this is the same as the tribe of Ephraim mentioned in the Old Testament, for nearly all the members of the Church residing in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia, I highly doubt that is true. I suppose there is some room to believe that particularly righteous spirits from the pre-mortal existence might have special gifts that lead them to join/be born in the Church, but then we ought to sever the link between that concept and the language of blood lineage and the historical entities known as the Twelve Tribes. We need to find a new name for it.

  66. Okay everybody, here is the gospel truth according to John (me): Linage does matter, but we simply don’t know exactly how it matters in every situation. Some spirits were more valiant and/or chosen in the pre-existence. God rewards us or gives us more responsibility according to the trust we earn either pre-mortally or here. Linage gives us a sense of identity. Patriarchal blessings help us to know what kind of talents and weaknesses we may need to be aware of. Joseph Smith said that when an Ephraimite does not have the gospel, watch out! (paraphrase.) They are of the personality type (ADD?) that will take over the world.

    The point is we don’t know where the blood of Israel is, literally or figuratively. The gospel must be preached to every nation, KINDRED, tongue and people, because the valiant will be found everywhere. Ones who were more valiant in the pre-existence will be more likely found among the literal blood of Israel while other “late bloomers” will be found among the “heathen” part of the vineyard.

    God is no respecter of persons, and neither should we be. I love each of my children equally, but I may not trust one as much as another. One may take longer to learn some of life’s lessons and another may pick up on things right away. Neither is more special or of any greater or lesser value to me. I would give my life for any one of them. Christ gave His for us all, ya know.

    Therefore, linage (literally or figuratively) give us a tool to understand ourselves and helps us know what we are in for and what is expected of us, but it means absolutely nothing in terms of our value to God or our possibilities for salvation or exaltation.

  67. You know — I just thought of something that I don’t know has been brought up quite this way yet — but lineage is also patriarchal, not just in the sense that you’re given a blessing, but as hands are laid on heads, generation upon generation, and lineage is SET FORTH, we have a literal descendancy/ascendency of clear priesthood order, just as clear as actual birth. Abraham sought the blessings of the fathers — a continuation of lineage, powers, and rights — as such he is both a literal example of what it means to be adopted (his earthly father was a wicked, murderous man, so seperating and joining God’s order was adopting into), as well, Abraham is the father of many nations, lineages, etc., and really the first of a peculiar priesthood order (read: lineage or tribe) set apart by God.

    So lineage is BOTH simultaneously literal and figurative — it’s hard to define it as just either/or, since there is so much going on.

  68. Some appear through their lineage to be called to suffer because they have the right to the priesthood, others are called to suffer because they are forbidden to hold the priesthood. Lineage is important, but it isn’t important. God is no respector of persons, but He respects lineage, sometimes. It is a muddle, at once painful, joyful, and endlessly entertaining.

  69. 70 — That’s the beauty of it!

    Or, how about this:
    1. Lineage matters, but some of the reasons we think it matters are wrong. Maybe most or all. But it matters.
    2. The important thing is to be in the lineage of Abraham, and it doesn’t matter whether one is a literal or adopted descendant of Abraham. Thus, for members of the Church, this specific question no longer applies — you are in the door. What it might mean for those not yet in the Church is not as clear.
    3. The only way we know of to change your lineage is to join the Church and become adopted into the lineage of Abraham. Otherwise, lineage is not subject to free agency, so it is pretty much something to think about to see if you can learn useful truths from.
    4. Using the intellectual exercise aspect of this to justify treating people badly based on their lineage is a bad thing. You heard it here first. If the greatest in the Kingdom of God is the servant of all, the greatest lineage must serve all others, and treat them the way their master would. Thinking you’re better than someone else makes that untrue.

  70. The way that the doctrine of lineage is set out is very sacred to me.

    We are the children of God. Generically, of course, we can say in a facile way that were are all literally the spirit children of diety and leave it there. But the prophets don’t; there is a covenant rebirth of becoming the sons and daughters of god. That lineage is a privileged relationship and an inheritance I am honored to claim and to which I desperately try to cling.

    The pattern for binding us all in that lineage is beautiful and sacred to me. Jesus Christ makes me His son through his sacrifice and my acceptance of it through His grace. So this is a second layer, but it does not stop there.

    In addition there is a pattern whereby we are not only bound in a lineal covenant through the Lord but also laterally through our generations and all generations of time. If my baptismal covenants make me the Son of Christ, then through my temple covenants I lay claim to the covenants of Abraham through that inheritance. That is the covenant of eternal lives. To say I do not want the inheritance given to Abraham as his son too, is to say that I do not want the blessing of eternal life.

    Perhaps it could have been laid out in another way. Perhaps the plan of Salvation could have been a lineal matter only, from The Father through the Son to me. But instead the dead without us cannot be made perfect and we without our dead cannot be made perfect. I want to speak up emphatically for the idea that the web of salvation is organized by lineage–by the interconnectedness of human relationships.

    I hope to continue to cling to my inheritance through Abraham and to strive to bind all around my into the web of descent too. My missionary work is not just to bring others into the Church but to have them partake of the eternal promises made to archetype of the covenant of eternal live to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.

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