“Patriarchal Blessings,” Church History Topics
The Bible and Book of Mormon describe ancient patriarchs who bestowed inheritances upon their posterity by giving them blessings. For example, Jacob blessed his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh with special inheritances, and in his final moments, Lehi gathered his family together to pronounce blessings and prophesy about their future.1 As directed by revelation given to Joseph Smith, early Latter-day Saints renewed the biblical practice of fathers blessing their children, sometimes calling these “patriarchal blessings.”2
Joseph Smith extended the ancient practice to involve ordained patriarchs, whom he sometimes referred to as “evangelical ministers” and who were designated to provide blessings to individuals whose fathers were no longer living or were not members of the Church. He taught that “the oldest man of the Blood of Joseph or of the seed of Abraham … should be a patriarch for the benefit of the posterity of the Saints as it was with Jacob in giving his patriarchal blessing unto his Sons.”3 This privilege first fell to Joseph Smith Sr., whom Joseph Smith ordained a Patriarch to the Church in Kirtland, Ohio, in December 1834.4 Joseph Sr. gathered family members together, pronounced blessings declaring their covenant lineage in the House of Israel, and sealed spiritual inheritances based on covenant promises. He soon began to pronounce blessings on Latter-day Saints beyond his family.5
During the months leading up to the dedication of the Kirtland temple, many Latter-day Saints received patriarchal blessings. They held large meetings during which several people received blessings from Joseph Sr., and they celebrated these occasions with feasts, music, and testimony.6 Though the practice of holding patriarchal blessing meetings diminished after the temple dedication, many Saints continued to invite Joseph Sr. (and later, other patriarchs) into their homes to receive special blessings.
Beginning in 1837, other patriarchs began to be ordained, and a distinction arose between the Patriarch over the whole Church and those patriarchs assigned to branches or stakes.7 After the death of Joseph Smith Sr., a revelation named Hyrum Smith the next Church Patriarch “by blessing and also by right,” and hereditary succession continued, with sons of Joseph Sr. and their descendants (with very few exceptions) serving as Patriarchs to the Church until Elder Eldred G. Smith was announced as emeritus without replacement in 1979.8 The calling of local patriarchs continues today.
In 1835, Oliver Cowdery began recording patriarchal blessings as scribe in a letter book. The Church has collected and archived patriarchal blessings ever since.9 A procedure developed in the early 20th century in which local leaders, usually bishops, recommended persons to patriarchs for a blessing, and patriarchs filed blessings with the Church. This effort continued despite significant Church growth and millions of blessings being processed. In 2015, the Church History Library launched a website that allows Church members to request copies of their patriarchal blessings and those of their deceased direct ancestors.