Cover image for Binding Earth and Heaven: Patriarchal Blessings in the Prophetic Development of Early Mormonism By Gary Shepherd and Gordon Shepherd

Binding Earth and Heaven

Patriarchal Blessings in the Prophetic Development of Early Mormonism

Gary Shepherd and Gordon Shepherd

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184 pages
6" × 9"
2012

Binding Earth and Heaven

Patriarchal Blessings in the Prophetic Development of Early Mormonism

Gary Shepherd and Gordon Shepherd

“This is a truly original work. It draws upon both primary and secondary sources to demonstrate the importance of the Mormon ritual institution of patriarchal blessings, which is widespread among Mormons at the grassroots but little known outside the church.”

 

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In Binding Earth and Heaven, Gary Shepherd and Gordon Shepherd use early nineteenth-century Mormonism as a case study to examine questions about how new religious movements may, as rare exceptions, survive and even eventually become successful in spite of intense opposition. Initial scorn and contempt for Mormonism—the fledgling creation of the young Joseph Smith—quickly elevated to mob violence as both Smith’s innovative teachings and converted followers proliferated, resulting in the widely held perception that the Mormons constituted a social menace. This book examines how Mormonism attracted and maintained the loyalty of increasing numbers of people despite mounting hostilities and severe hardships.

The book focuses on the unique Mormon ritual (and accompanying doctrinal underpinnings) of “patriarchal blessings.” Patriarchal blessings were an innovative adaptation of the Old Testament practice of fathers making quasi-legal pronouncements over the heads of their sons—a way of verbally conferring rights, promises, admonition, and guidance to heirs. Binding Earth and Heaven shows how the organizational complexities of this practice contributed to strengthening and sustaining member faith and fealty, thereby bolstering the continuity and development of Mormonism.

“This is a truly original work. It draws upon both primary and secondary sources to demonstrate the importance of the Mormon ritual institution of patriarchal blessings, which is widespread among Mormons at the grassroots but little known outside the church.”
“From the perspective of historical sociology, Gary Shepherd and Gordon Shepherd have written one of the most important studies of gender in Mormon history. They expected to find ‘extreme male bias’ in the ‘patriarchal blessings’ of pastoral counsel and prediction given to women and to men by Mormon patriarchs from the mid-1830s to mid-1840s. Instead, their content analysis of these carefully recorded documents provides statistical evidence of surprising gender egalitarianism in a patriarchal church’s first decade.”

Gary Shepherd is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Anthropology at Oakland University.

Gordon Shepherd is Professor of Sociology at the University of Central Arkansas.

Contents

List of Tables

Preface

Introduction

1 The Commitment and Doctrinal Functions of Early Mormon Patriarchal Blessings

2 Unity and Conflict in Early Mormon History

3 The Office and Calling of the Church Patriarch

4 The Problems and Promise of Patriarchal Blessings as Historical Artifacts

5 Patriarchal Blessing Themes, 1834–1845

6 Gender Differences in Early Patriarchal Blessings

7 Latter-day Saint Patriarchal Blessings Yesterday and Today

Appendix A: Examples of Oracular Versus Inspirational Modes of Prophetic Rhetoric

Appendix B: Blessings Randomly Sampled from Marquardt’s Early Patriarchal Blessings

Appendix C: Thematic Word Index for Patriarchal Blessings

Notes

References

Index

Introduction

With a current official membership of more than 14,000,000 worldwide, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or LDS Church) is one of the fastest-growing religious denominations in the United States as well as in numerous other countries.1 Headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, the capital city of a staunchly Republican state, the LDS Church is widely known for its advocacy of wholesome lifestyles, traditional gender roles, and conservative family values. Two Mormon former state governors—Mitt Romney (Massachusetts) and John Huntsman (Utah)—vied as Republican Party candidates for President of the United States in 2011, with Romney emerging by the spring of 2012 as the presumptive Republican nominee (after an earlier failed attempt in 2008).2

A mere century and a quarter ago, however, on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Ezra B. Taylor of Ohio denounced the “Mormon menace” in unequivocal language:

An earnest, resolute, and even fanatical people have taken possession of one of the large Territories of the Union, seized upon the public domain, organized and established a church which absorbs as well as controls the state . . . and made it not an empire in an empire, but the empire itself . . . This people and this church defy the moral sense of the civilized world and are of necessity antagonistic to the principles and institution of the Republic. . . . They defy such laws as thwart their needs and interests, and the time has arrived when it must be decided whether they rule or obey.3

The 1887 deliberations of the Edmunds-Tucker Bill—punitive anti-polygamy legislation, which Congressman Taylor was advocating—signaled the culmination of several decades of intense political struggle between the United States government and the Utah LDS Church. Beginning in the early 1830s, the “Mormons” had undergone years of intense opposition in the Midwestern states of Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, and thirteen years prior to the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War they had fled to the Rocky Mountains in search of religious refuge. Following a period of relative tranquility and insular theocracy in the Utah Territory, an expeditionary force of the United States Army was dispatched in 1857 to depose Brigham Young as territorial governor and reinforce federal executive and judicial authority among the supposedly rebellious Mormons.

By the late nineteenth century, Mormonism was universally despised and had become the target of an unprecedented national campaign to extirpate polygamy and the theocratic institutions of the LDS Church. In the American South, especially, the means employed against the “Mormon menace” included not only legislation and religion but also vigilante violence directed against Mormon missionaries who dared preach their heretical faith in Southern states. In his study of second-generation Mormonism’s relationship to postbellum America, Patrick Mason makes the case that anti-Mormonism became an important cultural mechanism for reconciling the North and South following the Civil War by uniting nominally decent, God-fearing citizens in both regions of the country against what was increasingly portrayed by politicians, clergymen, and the mass media as a malignant religious tumor on the body of Christian America.4 It is doubtful that the history of any other American religion surpasses the sustained conflict and opposition, often involving violence or the threat of violence, which the Latter-day Saints had to overcome before firmly establishing the legitimacy of their religious faith.

The Problem of Commitment in Heretical New Religions

In the face of fierce opposition by established religious traditions and secular authorities—opposition that often includes extralegal violence as well as relentless legal prosecutions—we may ask, How do heretical new religions sustain their resilience and the resolute commitment of their members? By “heretical,” of course, we do not mean intrinsically wrong or wicked. We simply mean doctrines and corresponding practices that are at variance with the authority of established orthodoxies.5 It will not do to simply say that such groups consist of deluded fanatics in the thrall of egomaniacal leaders. This explains very little.6 Embattled new religions that endure, and even flourish over time, must effectively appeal to the religious aspirations of some segment of what Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge call a “religious economy.”7 An active religious economy can exist when religious freedom, and therefore religious choice, is countenanced by the political institutions of the state. For a new religion to attract and then retain converts in a religious economy, it must, in the first instance, have market appeal—it must appeal to religious consumers who are already predisposed to certain core values and beliefs but are dissatisfied with what currently is offered by established religions. In the second instance, assuming market appeal to some segment of a religious economy, we must ask: Exactly what is it that new religions actually do to preserve, and even strengthen, the faith and loyalty of their converted members when faced with concerted opposition to the promulgation of their putatively heretical beliefs and practices? Those socially fostered attitudes, practices, and rituals that serve to reinforce members’ compliance with group requirements in pursuit of group goals may be called “commitment mechanisms.” Effective commitment mechanisms are an essential aspect of the institutional structure of any enduring organization or community.8 It is this second concern with convert commitment that is our primary focus in this book.

The Case of Mormonism

Taking early Mormonism as a strategic case study,9 we address in this book the question of how embattled new religions may survive and even flourish by focusing on one particular complex of LDS beliefs, rituals, and practices—the institution of patriarchal blessings—that emerged as an important compensatory commitment mechanism in the nineteenth-century Mormon restoration movement. Patriarchal blessings were neither the only nor single most important commitment mechanism operating in early Mormon development—far from it. In a prior study, we identified a broad range of different activities, rules, beliefs, and organizational characteristics that elicited Mormon faith and loyalty in the face of opposition, hardship, and doubt.10 But because both the content and process of obtaining patriarchal blessings combine and emphasize several key elements of Mormon theology—such as revelation and prophetic guidance, priesthood authority, the millennial end times, building the Kingdom of God on earth, lineal continuity with the ancient Israelites as God’s covenant people, eternal salvation through sacrificial obedience, and other related themes—we believe that they were a particularly potent vehicle for bolstering early Mormon faithfulness. At the same time, patriarchal blessings were also a means of solidifying and reinforcing convert understanding of unique Mormon tenets by articulating these in powerful, personalized, prophetic language for recipients of those blessings.

As noted above, securing faith and loyalty from followers must, of course, be preceded by their initial attraction to a group. The rise and spread of nineteenth-century Mormonism demonstrates a necessary correspondence between the relative success of a new religion and its market appeal to some segment of a religious economy. Those individuals to whom early Mormonism most appealed were Bible-reading Christians who were seeking a restoration of New Testament visionary religion; they were already primed to accept and be guided by prophetic pronouncements contained in revelations and blessings as God’s Word to the contemporary world.11 While the origins of most prophetic new religions like Mormonism naturally draw attention to the character and claims of their charismatic founders, the actual inception, construction, and subsequent development of enduring new religions also need to be understood as the collective result of like-minded collaborators and devoted disciples in interaction with outsiders and well-entrenched establishment institutions.

It is worth noting that the emergence and development of a new religion, as it takes on organizational form, is simultaneously a unifying and divisive phenomenon. The polarizing character of religious movements is especially true of religions like Mormonism that proclaim the charismatic authority of divine revelation and prophetic guidance in connection with their origins and subsequent development. Many people (especially religious officials and the clergy) are offended by a new religion’s perceived heretical challenge to the doctrines and practices of established religious traditions. They may feel compelled to oppose or even engage in active suppression of what they believe to be dangerous religious falsehoods. In contrast, other people—those who constitute the market for the appeals of a new religion—become convinced that they have found precisely what they were looking for. While most converts entertain occasional doubts, the truly committed not only articulate verbal justifications for their religious commitments but also are willing to make significant personal sacrifices in defense of their new faith.12

Over time, many converts to new religions remain steadfast or even increase their devotion, while others eventually become disillusioned and withdraw their commitments. Of those converts who become disillusioned, a certain number—typically a statistical minority—become “apostates.” That is, as former group members, they become actively engaged in opposing or attempting to suppress the new faith they once embraced.13 All of these convert categories and commitment phases are dramatically demonstrated in the early years of Mormon history. In this book, however, we are primarily concerned with those early converts who remained sufficiently committed to their faith and the organizational means employed for strengthening it, thereby sustaining the continuity and development of Mormonism as a new religion.

Religious Polarization and the Strong Charisma of Oracular Prophecy

Weberian scholar Edward Shils argues that most people, most of the time, value order over uncertainty, and that those individuals who are able to dispel human confusion and uncertainty creatively, through their art, science, philosophy, or leadership in economic, political, military, or religious affairs, are accorded the highest respect by their peers: “Whatever embodies, expresses, or symbolizes the essence of an ordered cosmos or any significant sector thereof awakens the disposition of awe and reverence, the charismatic disposition.”14 According to Shils, the “charismatic disposition”—the propensity to attribute extraordinary (or even supernatural) gifts and authority to innovators and supremely confident leaders—is intrinsic to the human condition in all societies and historical epochs.

It is in the context of religious issues concerning ultimate value and meaning, especially in times of uncertainty, stress, and upsetting social changes, that “charisma” is often attributed to the founders of new faiths that arise to challenge the cosmological and moral foundations of precursor faiths. Prototypical prophets, such as Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, issue authority claims that stand outside the normative structures of tradition or law and, in fact, typically call into question the legitimacy of existing institutional authority. The words and moral vision of the prophet are attributed to a transcendent source and, through claims of divine guidance, command compliance in the name of God as being wholly superior to any worldly authority or human power. All would-be prophets do not, of course, succeed in winning converts to their transcendent claims. The only empirical test of prophetic charismatic authority is whether a sufficient number of followers willingly acknowledge the prophet’s claims and render loyal obedience to his or her moral mandates in order to sustain a new religious community.15

The claim of transcendent authority and supernatural power in support of new or alternative doctrines and practices typically is much stronger for religious converts than claims made on mere grounds of reason or any form of human authority. In particular, those prophetic religions that attract followers on the basis of what we will call oracular prophecy are most likely to be polarizing religions. Oracles are considered to be spiritual intermediaries (or prophets, in the Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions) through whom ultimate truths are directly transmitted. These truths are thought by believers to transcend the range of ordinary human knowledge or understanding. As a form of communication, oracular prophecy is typically declarative and highly personalized; by announcing a divine message, it aims to have a stimulating and motivational effect on people’s thoughts and actions.

More specifically, oracular prophecies consist of revelatory pronouncements formulated as the literal voice of God or other divine entities, channeled through selected prophetic oracles, for instructing, admonishing, and rewarding human actors in exchange for their obedience. Obedience in this context, of course, means compliance with what are construed as God’s laws, commandments, and divine principles that typically set adherents apart from nonbelievers. The Hebrew Decalogue popularly attributed to Moses’s Mount Sinai theophany and Muhammad’s dictation of the Holy Qur’an are prime examples of oracular prophecy; they are echoed in Joseph Smith’s religious narrative as prophet and founder of nineteenth-century Mormonism. When formalized in writing and officially certified by the recognized authorities of a particular religious tradition, such pronouncements attain the status of holy writ or scripture for guiding and judging adherents of the faith.

Oracular prophecy can be contrasted with what we will call inspirational prophecy. Like oracular prophecy, inspirational prophecy may also be canonized in scripture, but its style of communication is typically expository and less personal. It too aims to stimulate and inspire followers to action in God’s name but claims only God’s sanction and approval. Inspirational prophecy is less radical than oracular prophecy, less strong and demanding; it does not profess to dictate God’s words, verbatim, to the people. For example, ex cathedra pronouncements contained in papal encyclicals issued by the Catholic Church are considered by Catholics to be revelations of God’s will to his vicar on earth, but they are scarcely expressed in the language of oracular prophecy. In contrast to what might be called the “strong charisma” of oracular prophecy, the milder charisma of inspirational prophecy tends to be less polarizing. One common historical pattern among prophetic religions that, like Mormonism, manage to survive the vicissitudes of their origins and become established denominations in the religious economy is that they move from their oracular origins to increasing reliance on less radical forms of inspirational prophecy as their chief mode of guidance.16

The strong charisma of oracular prophecy is fundamentally supported by what Garry Wills calls “ultra-supernaturalism.”17 We employ this term to highlight the beliefs of actors in the religious economy who insist on the ever-present reality of spirit entities that direct human destiny. Prior to the advent of eighteenth-century Enlightenment scholarship and science, such a requirement would seem largely superfluous in Western culture. Both Catholic and Protestant societies were once dominated by such beliefs. Three hundred years ago, there was virtual consensus on the proximate reality of an active spirit world—regardless of the governing religion—that sustained a miraculous rather than a naturalistic worldview. It is only from the vantage point of later, more skeptical centuries, in which Christian belief systems have gradually been tempered and much modified in response to scientific naturalism, that adding the prefix “ultra” to “supernatural” gives us a useful term for retrospectively describing the most emphatic kinds of supernatural beliefs in a designated religious economy. The cultural relationship between the plausibility of oracular claims and ultra-supernaturalism can be stated simply: The plausibility of oracular prophecy, in which spirit entities verbally communicate with human oracles, is greatly enhanced for people living in cultural environments where ultra-supernatural beliefs prevail. Conversely, the weaker the prevalence of ultra-supernaturalism in a designated cultural environment, the less plausible oracular claims are for a larger number of people.18

Ultra-supernatural beliefs characterize religious cultures that posit the existence of supernatural entities and a spirit world transcending mundane human existence. They also emphasize the permeability of the boundary separating the spirit world from the natural world. In the ultra-supernatural worldview, various spirit entities are believed to routinely breach the veil between heaven and earth, appearing before human actors in dramatic displays of their superhuman powers. At the same time, human reports of being transported in time and space to experience contact with and receive verbal instruction or empowerment from transcendent entities are given reverential credence by believers. Ultra-supernatural beliefs serve to explain virtually every aspect of daily life and human history as the result of supernatural intervention in human affairs. In the monotheistic faith traditions of ancient Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, supernatural intervention was portrayed as an integral element in the struggle between good and evil—literalized in ultra-supernatural beliefs as a ferocious spiritual clash between the evil forces of the Devil and the godly forces of Heaven. Through the lens of ultra-supernatural belief, human conflicts are interpreted as the dramatic unfolding of this cosmic clash: anthropomorphized specific spirit entities, both good and evil, relentlessly labor to achieve their conflicting ends by deploying miraculous powers and recruiting human agents into the struggle.

Members of new religions founded in oracular prophecy are nourished by cultures that sustain an ultra-supernatural world view. They typically believe that they have been granted privileged possession of ultimate truth and the efficacious (often esoteric) means for validating it through various forms of studious inquiry, prayer, meditation, ritual, abstinence, self-mortification, substance ingestion, hypnotic trance states, and so on. All of the latter, with the exception of substance ingestion and hypnotic states, are recommended by Latter-day Saints as means of validating the exclusive truth claims of their religion. Patriarchal blessings in particular may be understood as a ritual practice that Mormons believe constitutes a spiritual medium for revealing God’s personalized intentions in the lives of blessing recipients, both individually and collectively as God’s covenant people.

Increasing secularism and the rationalizing forces of modernity notwithstanding, ultra-supernaturalism has been a major and persistent cultural element in American history. It characterized the religious worldview of the New England Puritans (cultural ancestors of many of Mormonism’s early leaders, including Joseph Smith and his successor, Brigham Young) and was an essential ingredient in the first and second “Great Awakenings” that fueled the rise of American evangelical Christianity in the nineteenth century.19 Ultra-supernaturalism was an especially prevalent part of the cultural milieu of western New York state, where Joseph Smith grew to young manhood.20 Today, similar ultra-supernatural beliefs continue to be strongly emphasized by many contemporary evangelical Christians and Pentecostals.21 Our exposition of the themes of early Mormon patriarchal blessings will highlight the salience of ultra-supernatural beliefs shared by Mormonism’s founding generation of leaders and followers.

The earliest version of Mormonism in America in the 1830s appealed to denominationally disaffected Christians (like Joseph Smith’s father, Joseph Smith Sr.) who nonetheless professed ultra-supernatural beliefs and longed for the prophetic authority and spiritual gifts of New Testament Christianity.22 As a new religious movement, Mormonism was unequivocally oracular in its mode of development and functioning during the brilliantly implausible career of its founder, Joseph Smith Jr. The prophet Joseph Smith exercised the strong charisma of oracular prophecy to build the doctrinal foundation of his followers’ faith while providing decisive organizational leadership.

This is not to say that Smith’s charismatic leadership was uncontested or produced only unity, not division. To the contrary, by enacting the role of God’s chosen oracle for ushering in what his followers believed was the restoration of the true church of Jesus Christ in the last days of human history, Joseph Smith attracted intense repudiation and abhorrence, and intense devotion and admiration, in equal measure. Even within the Mormon community, the prophet was a polarizing figure. His oracular pronouncements were not confined to a single, initial, comprehensive statement of God’s will. Rather, they continued and were increasingly elaborate as he expanded the scope of his theological and organizational ideas over the course of a fourteen-year prophetic career. While many followers thrilled in the belief that a modern-day prophet was guiding them with constant updates from God and welcomed the innovations that resulted, more than a few early converts to the Book of Mormon soon became agitated and disaffected by the newly revealed doctrinal and policy edicts—some of them seemingly contradictory—that issued from Smith’s fertile mind.23 A number of his erstwhile lieutenants and early counselors turned on him, some seeking to take his life (antagonistic episodes of this type are highlighted in chapter 2). Nevertheless, the cohesiveness and proliferation of early Mormonism would be virtually inconceivable without the strong oracular religious foundations laid by Joseph Smith.

At the same time, early Mormonism’s rapid spread did not depend solely on oracular prophecy. Among a variety of additional factors,24 it also resulted from the organizational authority given to other individuals among his followers to speak and act in the name of God—to pronounce, in the capacity of various lay priesthood offices to which a number of faithful Mormon men were ordained, what they believed was revelation from God for the instruction, admonition, guidance, and encouragement of Mormon converts. The earliest investigators and new converts to the religion commonly turned directly to Joseph Smith to seek personal answers from the prophet in resolving their questions. Indeed, a number of his first recorded revelations were precisely responses to queries of this sort.25 However, delegation of authority to provide spiritual and practical guidance quickly became mandatory as convert numbers swelled and centers of Mormon activity dispersed over greater distances. Empowering other men with priesthood authority to speak in God’s name and perform miraculous deeds for individual or local purposes was a significant element in early Mormonism’s democratic appeal.

Chief among these additionally empowered oracles were the patriarchs of the church, who, through their “restored sealing authority,” vouchsafed blessings to the people redeemable both on earth and in heaven.26 (In Mormon parlance, to “seal” a blessing or relationship through priesthood authority signifies making a promised result legitimate and permanent, both in this life and in the life to come.) Patriarchal blessings were a highly important element in a constellation of emerging LDS practices for strengthening converts’ ultra-supernatural faith, reinforcing their doctrinal understanding of what outsiders viewed as a Christian heresy,27 and infusing them with a sense of their transcendent destiny, as God’s chosen people, to restore what they believed was the true church and gospel of Jesus Christ in the last days of human time. In this book, we investigate the commitment and doctrinal exposition functions of those blessings in the lives of early LDS converts.

Overview of the Book

In chapter 1, we amplify our discussion of the supernatural valence of oracular prophecy in generating religious commitment and the charismatic appeal of early Mormonism to nineteenth-century restorationists. To provide essential historical context for understanding many of the doctrinal themes expressed in patriarchal blessings, in chapter 2 we narrate some of the chief episodes of early Mormon history, especially those that demonstrate the simultaneous social consequences of unity and conflict in oracular religious movements. In chapter 3 we focus on the origins of the office and calling of the patriarch and discuss the communal ritual characteristics of early patriarchal blessings and their distinctive role in reinforcing the religious commitment of LDS converts. Chapter 4 describes the available documentary sources of early Mormon patriarchal blessings, the value and limitations of using such documents to infer historical outcomes, and our methodology for drawing a sample of blessings and performing a systematic content analysis on them. Chapters 5 and 6 report the statistical thematic findings of our content analysis. In chapter 5, the twenty most common patriarchal blessing themes pronounced in the first decade of Mormon history are identified and analyzed as prophetic contributions to the promulgation of core LDS beliefs in a manner that strongly reinforced members’ personal faith in those beliefs. Chapter 6 further advances our theme analysis by spotlighting gender as an important blessing variable. Our analysis of gender differences in early patriarchal blessings shows that, while reflecting nineteenth-century gender norms concerning male authority, blessings were relatively egalitarian in their thematic contents. Thus we are led to the primary conclusion that the patriarchal blessings for both Mormon men and women served to unite their commitments to the religious cause of the Latter-day Saint restoration. Finally, in chapter 7 we reflect on the changed character and relative decline in the institutional salience of contemporary LDS patriarchal blessings in comparison to the historical ascendance of other Mormon commitment mechanisms, especially those involved in LDS temple worship and the institution of general conference.

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