One of Mormonism’s unique features is the patriarchal blessing in which LDS church members–generally mid-teens or older, though there is no official age limit–are given the chance to have hands laid upon their heads by an experienced and humble priesthood leader who has been set apart as a “patriarch” and to receive from him words of wisdom, inspiration, encouragement, guidance, and in many cases, prophetic-type pronouncements about possibilities for their lives, with some of these statements quite specific or unique. Most Latter-day Saints consider their patriarchal blessings wonderful treasures in their lives, and as containing words (as panelist Richard Bushman says in this episode) that are “set apart from other words” and seen as God’s words just for us. They are, as he says, words that can galvanize our powers, direct us, humble us, and make us better people.
There is, however, quite an air of mystery around patriarchal blessings, and because of their unique character and the felt sense of sacredness surrounding them, many Latter-day Saints add expectations about what these blessings are that are perhaps not warranted. Some see them as absolute predictors of future events or straight-from-God declarations about their past lives as spirits before mortality. As a result, some who have previously taken statements in their blessings (or the blessings of others) to be literal, “this and this is going to happen” kinds of pronouncements, become quite troubled when events do not unfold exactly as the blessing suggested–or at least they felt it suggested according to the reading they brought to it or the expectations they had about the nature of these blessings.
In this Mormon Matters episode, we have the privilege of having a wonderfully fresh and engaging discussion with Richard Bushman, a well-known and distinguished historian who from 1989 until a few years ago also served as a stake patriarch. He, in interaction with podcast host Dan Wotherspoon and panelist Jared Anderson, generously offers his perspectives on just what patriarchal blessings are–and what they are not. In what way are they “prophecy”–and he does not back down from that term!–but also what are our responsibilities in working with all words of God, even prophecy (which, he is very adamant about, are all mediated by human minds)? How might someone re-frame what they see as a patriarchal blessing’s promise–such as being alive at the time of Christ’s return–that has “failed”? He also shares much about his own calling to be a patriarch and what the experience of giving patriarchal blessings is like for him. He explores his sense of what it means to declare someone’s “lineage” through one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jared Anderson, in this section as well as an earlier framing of biblical precedents for patriarchal blessings and prophecies offers a wonderful reminder of the history of Israel and the “lost tribes,” along with fascinating insights into certain lines of argument in today’s biblical scholarship that both complicate and possibly free up for some people expectations about literal descent or what is going on when the Bible seems to contain passages that predict the future. Finally, the panelists discuss the idea of pre-existence in Mormon thought that often finds its way into patriarchal blessings through the words of some patriarchs who declare things about recipients’ “valiancy” during the War in Heaven or refer to some other aspect of pre-earth existence. If some people are declared to have been especially valiant, is the flip-side true that many others were not? Evil has often been done with such ideas, so this notion offers a good opportunity for an important wrestle–one that this discussion delivers, and one that we hope (along with many other themes in this episode) will continue to play out in the blog comments below.