In order to really understand the calling of a patriarch and the matter of giving patriarchal blessings, one must understand the premortal life of man. If we had our beginning when we were born upon this earth, it would be very difficult to understand the calling of a patriarch.
Brother John A. Widtsoe (1872–1952, former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) traveled to England during the First World War, and the English immigration official who interviewed him said, “No, we are not going to let you land. We have been letting your missionaries in, but we do not want any of your leaders.” He said, “Go and sit down.” So Brother Widtsoe went and sat down.
In a few minutes the official called him back and said, “If I let you land in my country, what will you teach my people?” And Dr. Widtsoe said, “I will teach them where they came from, why they are here, and where they are going.” The officer looked up at him and asked, “Does your church teach that?” And Brother Widtsoe said, “It does.”
“Well, mine doesn’t,” he said, and he came down with his stamp on the passport, signed it, and said, “You may enter.”
If we do not know where we are going, then we are just like a ship on the ocean without a rudder, without anyone to steer. We are tossed to and fro with the wind and the waves. But if we understand where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going, then we are more likely to reach the desired port. That is really the purpose of a patriarchal blessing, to be able to interpret and reveal to us, through the inspiration of the Almighty, why we are here and what is expected of us that we might fill the measure of our creation (see D&C 88:19) here upon the earth.
We read in the 29th verse of the 93rd section of the Doctrine and Covenants, “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” [D&C 93:29]
We were in the beginning with God. In the 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants we are told that we are begotten sons and daughters unto God (D&C 76:24). I am not going into the details of how we emerged from intelligence to spiritual beings, but God stood in the midst of these, and He was the most intelligent of them all, according to the revelation, and we were there with Him. Hence, having no beginning, we have no end. I refer to the oft-repeated statement that the Lord made to Abraham: “Now the Lord had shown unto me Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;
“And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.” (Abr. 3:22–23.)
Not only Abraham was chosen before he was born, but many others of whom we have record, and the only reason they were chosen before they were born is that God knew them. He stood in their midst, the great and the noble, and of course, all of the other spirits, but this particular reference says that He stood in the midst of the great and the noble spirits. Of all those noble spirits to come upon the earth, the most wonderful, of course, was Christ our Lord, the firstborn, the Son of God. Satan was another and, without going into details, Satan was a morning star, one of the bright spirits, but because of his actions, he was cast down to the earth and brought with him a third of the host of heaven.
Because these spirits lived and they were known—for God knew them—all of the prophets have spoken of the work of Christ and what He would do long before he was ever born into this world. They even declared the very minutest details with respect to His life, His ministry, His crucifixion, even that men would cast lots for His raiment when He should be put to death. And all of that was possible because He was known unto God.
Let us now consider John the Baptist. You remember that the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias and told him that his wife Elizabeth, would bear a son and that he would be a forerunner to go before and prepare the way for the coming of the Redeemer of the world. If he had had his beginning without that spiritual existence, it would seem almost incredible to think that anybody could tell what nature of Spirit was about to be born into the world.
In the words of Isaiah, “Known unto God are all of his works from the beginning.” He does not have to wait to see things worked out here in mortality, because He has decreed that certain things and objectives shall be achieved, and He has made preparations and provision in advance by sending certain spirits for their day and time. Their lives and their ministry is known to God just as much before they are born as was the mission and ministry of His only Begotten Son. That is why Gabriel could announce the coming of John and his great mission in the world.
Consider also the mission of John the Beloved, the apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. God did not need to wait until John the Beloved had lived upon the earth in order to know what his mission was in life. John had already prepared himself in the eternal world for the great mission whereunto he was called. That is why 600 years before Christ, an angel of God could reveal to Nephi the things that John would accomplish. (Read 1 Ne. 14:20–27.) The mission of a patriarch is to reveal the callings of the Lord unto His children here upon the earth so that they will have some concept of what the Lord expects of them while they are here in mortality.
There is a marvelous promise concerning the mission of Joseph Smith, the seer and prophet “like unto Moses,” (2 Ne. 3:9) that he should do no other work, save the work which the Lord should command him, and that the work that he should bring forth, by the power of God should bring many people unto salvation. (See 2 Ne. 3.) So you see, if a patriarch had the inspiration of his calling so that he knew and could receive from God the knowledge of who Joseph Smith was, it would be a simple thing for him to lay his hands upon Joseph’s head and pronounce upon him great powers of leadership. It would be simple because Joseph came in his day and time according to the call of the Almighty.
I remind you of Jeremiah who was called to be a prophet.
“Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.
“Then said I, Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.” (Jer. 1:4–6.)
Knowing all of these things, it isn’t difficult to understand the mission of a patriarch. The Apostle Paul understood that the Lord called men before they were born. Here are a few verses from the first chapter of Ephesians.
“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus:
“Grace be to you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.
“According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” (Eph. 1:1–4.)
So you see, those whom God hath chosen before the foundation of the world—and I would like to bear my testimony to you that most of us who were born under the new and everlasting covenant, (D&C 132:4), and those of us who have heeded the voice of the messengers of eternal truths and have accepted the same, come under this promise—He has called out of the world to be his leaders, to be a light unto the world. And what if in all men’s sight our light goes out? What if some of us should stray from the great mission to which the Lord has called us, and to which he ordained us even before the foundations of the world? One of the purposes of patriarchal blessings is to give unto us the inspiration that will enable us to succeed here in mortality, that we will be worthy of the great calling that came to us before the foundation of the world.
I have had the privilege, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, of ordaining a number of patriarchs, but the first one I ordained said to me, “I don’t believe I can fill that important office.” I had a letter from him a few weeks after he had been ordained, and he said something like this: “I didn’t think I could do it, and now I have been reading over the blessings that I have given, and I know I did not do it. The Lord did it, or it could not have been done as it has been done.”
I was in a certain part of the Church not so long ago, and I heard this story: A couple of boys went to the patriarch to receive their blessings. The patriarch knew one of the boys very well, and to the one he knew he said: “I have a wonderful blessing for you.” He blessed the other boy first. Then he laid his hands on the head of the boy for whom he had said he had a wonderful blessing, and he found he could not give him a blessing at all. The words just would not come. Finally he had to say, “You will have to come back some other time.”
The Lord let that patriarch know that no patriarch has a blessing for anybody. The blessings are from the Lord, and when men want to do honor to themselves, speak by their own power, by their own inspiration, they have nothing to give. It is the Lord who has the blessings to give and the patriarch is only the means through whom the Lord works to give His blessings.
I know of nothing more wonderful than the blessings given by Moses and by Jacob to the twelve tribes of Israel. Joseph was promised a new land in the “utmost bound of the everlasting hills,” (Gen. 49:26) that his branches should run over the wall, (see Gen 49:22) and that he should be blessed with the blessings of heaven above and the earth beneath (see Gen. 49:25). Perhaps neither Jacob nor Moses who gave the blessings had any concept of where the new land was that God would give unto Joseph or where the branches of that great house of Israel should go when they went over the wall. Even patriarchs do not understand all the blessings that they give.
I was visiting a patriarch a while ago. He told about a blessing he gave to a woman who came to him from one of the missions. Among other things he told her that her progenitors had made a great contribution to the bringing forth of the gospel in these latter days. And after the blessing was given she said, “I’m afraid you made a mistake this time. I am a convert to the Church; I am the first one in my family to join the Church.”
“Well,” the patriarch said, “I don’t know anything about it. All I know is that I felt prompted to say that to you.” And when he told me the story, she had just been in the genealogical library and had found that some of her relatives—her grandparents or her great-grandparents—had made great sacrifices in the early days of the Church. A part of the family had drifted up into the East and had been converted. She found that she was descended from some of the early pioneers. The patriarch did not know of it himself. He had spoken by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.
I was in Arizona a few years ago, and the president of the stake told me about one of his boys having been called to go on a mission. The boy went to the patriarch before he left, and the patriarch gave him a blessing. He told the boy that he should be satisfied with the assignment he would receive. And he said, “You shall see floods to the right of you and floods to the left of you, and your life will be protected and preserved.” He was assigned to the East Central States Mission, and while he was serving there, there was a major flood. The missionary was marooned in Louisville, Kentucky, in a house from which he had to be rescued in a boat, and he lived to see floods to the right of him and floods to the left of him. I ask you, how could the patriarch have known that when he gave that blessing, except by the inspiration of the Almighty?
I was raised in the home of a patriarch; my father was called to be a patriarch when he was 33. The first blessings he gave were to us boys. I was eight years old. There were three of us, and if you would take those blessings today—I did it the other day—and lay them down side by side, and you knew us boys, and you couldn’t see the names on the blessings, you would not have any difficulty whatever in fitting the blessings to each of us.
My father told me at the age of eight years that I did not come upon the earth by chance, but in fulfillment of the decrees of the Almighty. He then proceeded to tell me something of the work I had to do in the establishment of God’s kingdom. This blessing has been an inspiration to me ever since, and my constant prayer to the Lord has been that I might live worthily so that any event of His providence concerning me would never have to pass by because I had been unworthy to do the work He had for me to do.
God bless you to realize where you came from and the great privileges that are yours. If the veil were rolled back and you could see one glimpse of God’s great eternal plan concerning you and who you are, it would not be hard for you to love Him, keep His commandments, and live to be worthy of every blessing that he has had for you since before the foundations of the world were laid. And I pray the Lord to bless each one of you that you may never falter or fail.