The word “patriarch” is more commonly used in religious references. In Judaism, for example, “patriarch” may be used to refer to one of the three forefathers of Israel – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The word may also be used in reference to the twelve sons of Jacob, or the twelve tribes of Israel – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.) Or, it may refer to the antediluvian ancestors of the human race.
The word “patriarch” is formed from a combination of the Greek words for father and rule. Therefore, a layman’s definition of the word “patriarch” is a father who rules. The term is used today to refer to a male head of a household or organization. In that sense, a father would be considered the patriarch of his home.
The Office of Church Patriarch
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (inadvertently referred to as the Mormon Church by the media and others), “Patriarch” is an office in the Melchizedek Priesthood. A patriarch is ordained to give special blessings, called patriarchal blessings, to worthy members of the Church. The blessing is recorded and is retained by the Church. Fathers, as patriarchs of their homes, may also give special blessings to their wife and children, but those blessings are generally not recorded or retained by the Church.
In the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ, one man was called to be the Church Patriarch The call to serve in this office was based on heredity starting with Joseph Smith, Sr., the father of the first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith. There was a period of about a decade when Acting Patriarchs were called who were not in the direct family line. Those Acting Patriarchs included: Nicholas G. Smith (October 1932 to October 1934), Frank B. Woodbury (June 1935 to October 1937), and George F. Richards (October 1937 to October 1942).
On 3 October 1942, with the calling of Elder Joseph Fielding Smith (1899–1964) as Church Patriarch, the call returned to the family line. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith was a great-grandson of Hyrum Smith, the brother of Joseph Smith. Due to poor health he could no longer fulfill his responsibilities as Patriarch, and on 7 October 1946, per his request, he was released. In April 1947, Eldred G. Smith, the eldest son of Hyrum Gibbs Smith, was called to serve as Church Patriarch. He would serve as the last Church Patriarch.
The office of Patriarch to the Church was retired in 1979 “because of the large increase in the number of stake Patriarchs and the availability of patriarchal service throughout the world.” Eldred G. Smith was designated “a Patriarch Emeritus, which means that he is honorably relieved of all duties and responsibilities pertaining to the office of Patriarch to the Church” (Conference Report, Oct. 1979:25).
Elder Eldred G. Smith, the oldest known General Authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as, the oldest known Utahan, passed away at the age of 106, at home in Utah, on Thursday, 4 April 2013. During his 32 years as Church Patriarch, he traveled to every continent and gave more than 18,000 blessings.  Provo’s Daily Herald reports he had five children, 24 grandchildren, 45 great-grandchildren and 19 great-great grandchildren as of a year ago. He celebrated his 106th birthday on 9 January 2013.
What Is a Patriarchal Blessing?
A patriarchal blessing is similar to a prayer, and is given to worthy members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by a Stake Patriarch (a priesthood holder ordained to this calling). The blessing contains the Lord’s counsel for the person receiving the blessing and declares that person’s lineage in the house of Israel. The blessing may also give insight about a person’s life, and may include promises of blessings, warnings about temptations or weaknesses, or counsel about how the person should live. It is a sacred and personal document that should be read and studied often, but it should not be shared casually with others. The blessing is predicated upon an individual’s faithfulness, righteousness, and obedience to God’s commandments.
A patriarchal blessing will not of necessity answer every question about a person’s life, and will most likely not address every major event that will occur in a person’s lifetime. Promises that may not all be fulfilled during a person’s lifetime are also contained within the blessing, however, if a person lives righteously and remains faithful, he will eventually be the recipient of all of the blessings pronounced therein.
Concerning patriarchal blessings, Ezra Taft Benson, the thirteenth President of the LDS Church exhorted the Saints,
Receive a patriarchal blessing. Study it carefully and regard it as personal scripture to you—for that is what it is. A patriarchal blessing is the inspired and prophetic statement of your life’s mission together with blessings, cautions, and admonitions as the patriarch may be prompted to give…. Receive your patriarchal blessing under the influence of fasting and prayer, and then read it regularly that you may know God’s will for you (Ezra Taft Benson, “To the ‘Youth of the Noble Birthright‘,” Ensign, May 1986, 43-44).
Those members who are worthy and ready may receive their patriarchal blessing by first meeting with their Bishop or Branch President (the local head of the congregation.) Once approved, they schedule an appointment with their Stake Patriarch. The blessing that is given (spoken) by the Patriarch is recorded, typed up (usually by the Patriarch’s wife), and sent to the LDS Church headquarters where it is kept on file. A printed copy of the blessing is also mailed to the individual who received the blessing.
Speaking of the blessings bestowed by patriarchs, Joseph F. Smith, the sixth President of The Church of Jesus Christ, stated,
It is [a stake patriarch’s] business and right to bestow blessings upon the people, to make promises unto them in the name of the Lord… by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to comfort them in the hours of sorrow and trouble, to strengthen their faith by the promises that shall be made to them through the Spirit of God (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. , 181).
President Thomas S. Monson, President and Prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has counseled:
Your patriarchal blessing is yours and yours alone. It may be brief or lengthy, simple or profound. Length and language do not a patriarchal blessing make. It is the Spirit that conveys the true meaning. Your blessing is not to be folded neatly and tucked away. It is not to be framed or published. Rather, it is to be read. It is to be loved. It is to be followed. Your patriarchal blessing will see you through the darkest night. It will guide you through life’s dangers (Thomas S. Monson, “Your Patriarchal Blessing: A Liahona of Light,” Ensign, Nov. 1986, 66).
What Is the Melchizedek Priesthood?
In Latter-day Saint terminology, “priesthood” is defined as the authority and power of God. In the Church of Jesus Christ there are two main offices of the priesthood to which worthy male members are ordained – the Aaronic Priesthood (also referred to as the lesser priesthood), and the Melchizedek Priesthood (also referred to as the higher priesthood).
In the Old Testament book of Genesis we read of the patriarch Abraham’s encounter with the high priest, Melchizedek, and we learn that he paid tithes to him. In Genesis 14:18-20 are recorded these words:
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: and blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.
In Doctrine and Covenants, additional scriptures used by members of The Church of Jesus Christ which contain modern-day revelations, an explanation is given as to why the Melchizedek Priesthood is named after the ancient patriarch and high priest. In Doctrine and Covenants 107:3-4 are recorded these words:
Before his [Melchizedek’s] day it was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God. But out of respect or reverence to the name of the Supreme Being, to avoid the too frequent repetition of his name, they, the church, in ancient days, called that priesthood after Melchizedek, or the Melchizedek Priesthood.
The Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Hebrews makes mention that Christ is “a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.” In Hebrews 7:14-22 we learn,
For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood. And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchisedec there ariseth another priest, who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life. For he testifieth, thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec. For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof. For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God. And inasmuch as not without an oath he was made priest: (for those priests were made without an oath; but this with an oath by him that said unto him, the Lord sware and will not repent, thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec:) by so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament.
The Calling and Ordaining of Patriarchs Today
As the Church began to grow and to expand, having a roving Patriarch was no longer considered practical or feasible. Today, Patriarchs are called on the Stake (an administrative unit composed of multiple congregations, or wards, comparable to a diocese in the Roman Catholic Church) level. The ordaining of Stake Patriarchs was a responsibility that was originally assigned to the First Presidency or a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. However, as the Church has grown, that responsibility has been delegated by the Brethren to Stake Presidents when deemed necessary, however, the ordination of an individual as Patriarch must first be authorized by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The office of Patriarch is held for life. If the Patriarch is no longer able to function in his duties, an additional Stake Patriarch may be called.
Keith L. Brown
Keith L. Brown is a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, having been born and raised Baptist. He was studying to be a Baptist minister at the time of his conversion to the LDS faith. He was baptized on 10 March 1998 in Reykjavik, Iceland while serving on active duty in the United States Navy in Keflavic, Iceland. He currently serves as the First Assistant to the High Priest Group for the Annapolis, Maryland Ward. He is a 30-year honorably retired United States Navy Veteran.