Patriarchal blessings have been an ongoing part of the Latter-day Saint tradition from very early on. As something that many Latter-day Saints experience, it’s an area that many people have questions. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk, Latter-day Saint historian Keith Erekson discussed some of the insights about patriarchal blessings he had in connection with his book Making Sense of Your Patriarchal Blessing. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion).
When I first studied the Church History in the Fulness of Times manual that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published, its description of how the practice of patriarchal blessings struck me as a statement about how powerful these patriarchal blessing documents are. As is written in the manual:
The calling of Patriarch to the Church was one of Joseph Smith’s responsibilities. Frequently individuals wanted him personally to ask the Lord for a revelation for them, but as the Church grew, this became impractical. On 18 December 1833, while giving blessings to his family, the Prophet was inspired to call and ordain his father as the first Patriarch to the Church. From that time until his death in 1840, Joseph Smith, Sr., traveled among the branches, holding special blessing meetings where he gave many faithful Saints their patriarchal blessings. In addition to providing revelation to individuals, the patriarchal blessings also identified the person’s lineage in the house of Israel.
The reason that this stood out is that, in some ways, patriarchal blessings functioned as a revelation akin to those published in the Doctrine and Covenants. As described above, the blessings were an extension or delegation of the same practice that led to some of the canonical revelations, though the patriarchal blessings are personal and not binding on the Church as a whole.
In the interview, Keith Erekson noted that the term “patriarchal blessing” is “commonly used to refer to both the ordinance and the resulting text,” and that the text is “an extremely helpful gift of personalized direction, guidance, comfort, and protection.” A particularly important point that he makes is that the text of the blessing can function as a starting point for personal revelation:
Subsequently, the acts of reading, remembering, and pondering the promises in the text can serve as a catalyst for additional personal revelation through the Holy Spirit….
A patriarchal blessing is not meant to be the only communication you ever receive from God. The text itself is not intended to answer every question you will ever have. Rather, it is an invitation to ask God for more light and understanding.
The promises in a blessing point us to more revelation, discovered in scripture and through the communication of the Holy Spirit.
If you assume that your patriarchal blessing is the end of the conversation, then you may incorrectly expect it to provide answers to every problem you encounter. However, if you treat your blessing as the beginning of a lifelong conversation, as the doorway to further enlightenment, you will turn to it for guidance and direction that extends beyond the specific words on the page.
As the circumstances of your life change, often our understanding of the meaning of promises in the blessing also change. That’s part of why pairing personal, ongoing revelation with the blessing is helpful.
Now, to be clear, the wording of the blessings aren’t as important as the ideas that they portray. This is something that most people who give blessings or any sort, including patriarchs, can confirm when discussing how the blessings are given. As Erekson explained it:
We can gain more from our blessings if we understand that they are given in language that is conceptual and symbolic. One patriarch explained that when a patriarch “places his hands on your head to give you a blessing, Heavenly Father, through the promptings of the Holy Ghost, gives the patriarch ideas, concepts, and sometimes even specific words for you. The patriarch then includes those concepts and ideas in your blessing.”
Elder John A. Widtsoe elaborated:
“Different men express the same idea in different words. The Lord does not dictate blessings to them word for word.”
~John A. Widtsoe
Therefore, the exact wording is less important than the ideas.
The inspiration that is part of speaking a blessing generally comes as a flow of concepts that the person giving the blessing then does their best to capture in words. (I personally believe that this is still pretty similar to how the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants came to be, but I also recognize that my belief is very far from being the universal view in the Church.) Keeping this in mind in approaching patriarchal blessings compared to the official scriptural canon of the Church may result in a different approach to studying a blessing.
The idea that pairing personal revelation with your patriarchal blessing allows for further guidance in life is something that Erekson brought out elsewhere in the interview. In this case, he was discussing that people might have disappointments that their patriarchal blessings don’t address a specific issue:
Because God wants to reveal more to us, we need not worry about the things we don’t know right now. In fact, not knowing seems to play an important part in the process of our spiritual growth.
When asked about making sacrifice, Adam responded, “I know not, save the Lord commanded me” (Moses 5:6). And omissions are not necessarily significant. Your blessing does not purport to identify every stopping point on your journey.
Finally, if the Restoration of the gospel continues to be ongoing, then so too can our grappling with the meaning of a patriarchal blessing. The unfinished nature of both the blessing’s meaning and the longer-term process of enlightenment form the very marrow of what it means to live a life of faith.
To persist with Christ-centered faith, hope, and charity in the absence of easy resolution or consolation is what each of us is called to do.
The patriarchal blessings are a great blessing to have, but they aren’t the end-all of guidance and enlightenment for our lives.
For more insights on patriarchal blessings and examples from the lives of others, head on over to read the full interview with Keith Erekson over at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk.