Apostolic Blessings, Part II (history)

While looking into the present day usage of Apostolic blessings, I found quite a bit of history.   As mentioned in part I (updated), Apostolic blessings fall into several distinct styles:  Blessings using Apostolic authority to dedicate a country or region for missionary work, prayers or blessings given by an Apostle, and Apostolic blessings given to a congregation invoking Apostolic authority.  It is the last category that this post is going to investigate. It’s hard to say certain how the practice began, but I found several stories, including Joseph Smith in Missouri, David O. McKay’s worldwide tour of the church, and Elder Neal A. Maxwell in Idaho.

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism traces the practice back to Joseph Smith, noting an entry in the History of the Church,(volume 2:120) relating an incident that occurred during Zion’s camp:

On the 2nd I went down near Liberty [Missouri], and visited the brethren. A considerable number of the Camp met me at Lyman Wight’s. I told them if they would humble themselves before the Lord and covenant to keep His commandments and obey my counsel, the plague should be stayed from that hour, and there should not be another case of the cholera among them. The brethren covenanted to that effect with uplifted hands, and the plague was stayed.

Although the detail in this account is sparse, the only thing this occurrence appears to have common with modern-day Apostolic blessings is that it was given to a group of church members.  It is more of a prophetic rebuke than a blessing, and Joseph required the listeners to raise their hands in covenant.  It was with a small group of men he had grown close to over the previous months, and it seems that group blessings remained uncommon.

Moving forward nearly ninety years to 1921.  A young David O. McKay had begun a worldwide tour of the church.  It would take him far from the church’s center of strength in the mountain west, and into many countries where an Apostle had never set foot.  One such country was Samoa.  The mission president there, John Q. Adams, recorded that following a conference of about 40 missionaries and several hundred members, Elder McKay and his travelling companions left.  After twice bidding goodbye to a “reverent group of a couple hundred, headed by a band…” Elder McKay and three others he was travelling with had reached the river, but Elder McKay, “looking back with tears in his eyes, could bear it no longer… he dismounted in the trail and raising aloft his hands as a patriarch of the past, he pronounced [a] remarkable and soul-stirring benediction,”  closing it “By virtue of the holy apostleship, and in the authority of the Priesthood.”

The same day “a hole was dug at the exact spot where had stood Brother McKay when blessing them, and into this was consigned a hermetically-sealed bottle, containing a record of the occasion, including a copy of the prayer as well as Kippen Su’a could recollect it there and then.”  A year later, under the urging of the mission president,  a monument was dedicated.  The plaque on it read:

Tuesday, May 31, 1921
Apostle David O. McKay Stood Just Across the River
And Pronounced a Memorable Apostolic Blessing
Upon the Assembled Sauniatu Saints
A Fitting Climax to a Perfect Visit
Samoa’s Love is Told Thus: Mizpah
O he Faailoga Lenei Le Alofa
Atoatoa O Samao Mo Misi Makei Ma
Misi Kanona. Mesepa

MckayMonument

This sort of blessing seems to be unparalleled.  Perhaps it was the faith of a group of people who had never met an Apostle of God. It was certainly an uncommon occurrence; Elder McKay referred to the day as one of the most memorable of his life.

It would be 60 more years before Apostolic blessings took the form common today.  In April, 1984 Elder Neal A. Maxwell was the commencement speaker at Rick’s College.  The  history of the college notes that “At the conclusion of his address he made the experience memorable indeed. He pronounced an apostolic blessing. Blessings had been bestowed by apostles before, but not announced specifically as an apostolic blessing.”  It’s unclear if he wasn’t aware of the blessing given by Elder McKay, or if he was referring to the form of the blessing.  Apostolic blessings given today simply note that the speaker is giving such a blessing.  However, Elder McKay specifically invoked the priesthood and his Apostleship. The speech is not available online, so the question will remain unanswered for now.

From then until now, Apostolic blessings have become fairly common.  As part I of this post showed, they are regular experience in the MTC for new missionaries.  Stake and mission conferences seem to be frequent as well.  Other occurrences I found included family history trainings, a BSA leadership training, and a funeral.  There were even several instances of a seventy giving an Apostolic blessing using an Apostles authority.  (I was skeptical at first, but three separate blogs in separate missions record the same seventy doing it.)

It’s an interesting history, showing the evolution of not only a blessing, but also the office of Apostle. Joseph Smith used the form of a group blessing to rebuke a group of his close followers.  Elder McKay left a singular, memorable blessing on a group of saints who would very well never see an apostle again.  Videos, the internet and airplanes have made it possible for Apostles to frequently visit most areas of the church.  No monuments are built to commemorate them today, but Apostolic blessings still hold an important meaning for those who  hear them.

Feel free to add any history that I missed, by no means is this complete.  Also, if anyone reading this can translate the Samoan I’d be fascinated to know what it says.  The Improvement Era linked to explains that Elder McKay “quoted and explained as a parting thought Genesis 51:49. Mizpah (watch tower) is but one word but it expresses a wealth of significance: The Lord watch between us in our separation!”

Apostolic blessings, part I

Edit: new graph added, fixing a typo.

There is surprisingly little information on apostolic blessings.  In general, they seem to fall into three types:  prayers dedicating a country for missionary work, blessings or prayers given by an Apostle, and speaking to a congregation where it is explicitly stated to be an “apostolic blessing.”  The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, under priesthood blessings, simply notes:

Priesthood blessings are usually conferred by laying on of hands, which is seen as the New Testament pattern. Exceptions are found in administering the Sacrament and in apostolic blessings given to a congregation.

I decided to try and track the frequency with which apostolic are given by each of the apostles alive today.  Now, there is no official report made of most, so this relies on social media and google.  The procedure was straightforward, enter a google search for “Apostolic blessing” and “Elder so and so” (or president where appropriate).  The total results returned were noted (diagonal lines), then the first ten results were checked to how many actually referred to that apostle (dark blue).  The total number of times they were referenced from another search is shown in a regular blue..  The results are below:

Image

These numbers mean almost nothing on their own.  President Monson has nearly four hundred results returned, but of the first 10 results, 8 were references to him giving an apostolic blessing for the dedication of East Germany for missionary work in 1975.  Interestingly, about half of President Uchtdorf’s results were for  the dedication of Germany for missionary work, but in 2010.  Apostolic blessings often, but not always, accompany the dedication of a country for missionary work.

Another thing to note is the huge effect the Missionary Training Center has on these results.  Some talks are recorded and replayed for many of the missionaries coming through.  Missionaries also seem very likely to include very detailed reports of speakers on their blogs (I never realized there were so many missionary blogs.)  Elder Scott’s total results drops to 114 when pages with “mtc” are removed, over an 80% drop.  Others are not so extreme:  Elder Holland’s drops to 516, Elder Nelson to 290, and Elder Bednar to 263.  I think it shows the huge effect the MTC has on doctrine and church practice.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that there are no results  very few results for some apostles.  Now, I can’t say there are none.  I didn’t check every result, only the first ten, and there’s some obvious limitations to a google search.  But it is clear that some of the Apostles give blessings far more frequently than others.  This may be since some avenues, such as the MTC, or the dedication of a country for missionary work, are far more likely to result in it being reported.

Update:  I realized I’d misspelled Elder Andersen’s name, so I updated the graph, and while I was at it changed the format.  Here’s the new graph:

graph2

This time I scaled the total search results to reflect the percentage of the first 10 hits that actually referred to that apostle.  I also took the average of the first 10 results for “President” and “Elder” for members of the first presidency.

Stay tuned for part II, where I’ll explore some of the history behind apostolic blessings, and followup on any questions posted below.

Notes on procedure:

First of, a disclaimer.  Google’s search results are constantly being updated, so if you repeat my searches it is highly unlikely you will find exactly what I did, just in the two weeks I’ve researched this things have changed.  Plus, by publishing this article with various links it will change page rankings as well.  Search customization based on previous searches and geographic location may change some results.  Turning of search history will help, but I don’t believe that adjusts the geographic results.
I also tried common misspellings, e.g. Uchdorf, but there were so few results (4 for the misspelling compared to 120) that I didn’t bother to include these.  Apparently everyone’s spelling isn’t as bad as my own.
Also, apologies for the graph, I’ve had a hard time getting libreoffice to do what I want.

The Priesthood

I might as well call this blog “stuff my seminary teacher told me that wasn’t accurate.”  But that sounds a little harsh, and I’m not intending to write that many entries.  No, today I will dwell on a quote I have heard frequently misused, and will explain why I disagree.
It goes more or less like this, “only the Catholic church or the Mormon church can have a true claim to the authority Christ gave the apostles.”  And it was even a Catholic priest said it!  That’s probably why we love it so much.  Seriously, open any history book: crusades, inquisition, Henry the eight, the Nicene creed.  Yup, clearly we must be the ones with authority.  I’m sure this priest said it for the same reason: polygamy, mountain meadows, revelations and angels.  No way a church like that could have apostolic authority.  I find it rather amusing that we both can hold such a similar attitude.  But that’s not the main issue I have with using it.
The problem is, stating the Roman Catholic church is the only possible place Christ’s authority could have gone shows a blatant disregard for history.  The Catholic’s claim to authority goes to the pope; the bishop of Rome.  In the early days of the church, for the first 800 years or so, everyone kind of agreed that Rome was pretty important, but the bishop’s of Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, and Alexandria all considered themselves equals.  If the churches there had lasted to our day they would have just as much of a claim.  (And the Greek Orthodox Church has.)  I’m not putting this here to try to prove that the Catholic Church is false, I’m trying to show that any argument based on this kind of thinking is deeply flawed; the history is far more complex than a simple black and white argument allows.
So what good is this quotation?  I think it shows how Mormons and Catholics have a very different concept of priesthood and authority than most other Christian churches.  “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophesy and by the laying on of hands, to preach the gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.” How is that different from other churches?  How is it the same? And why does it matter?  Feel free to post your thoughts.

What’s in a name?

It’s natural that significance should be attached to a name.  Marketing, that’s the skeptical way to look at it, but it’s natural that people choose a name based on their goals and visions for an organization.  And although “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” is quite a mouthful, it succinctly explains the main beliefs and purposes of the church; that it is Christ’s church in the latter days.  Of course, a name may not convey any meaning.  Bob’s Taco shop is not owned by Bob, nor does a Bob work there, and the beef tacos are just as misleading.  Occasionally people attach an unnecessary amount of pride to the fact that are church has Christ’s name in the title, and was the first church named in that way, and I got to wondering if no one – in the 1800 years since Christ’s church was established – had thought to use his name*.

Of course, for a large chunk of that time the idea that there was something other than ‘the church’ was quite foreign to most people.  Those in favor of changing religion simply started their own order under the church’s authority.  Carmelites, Franciscans, Dominicans and many, many other orders were all begun in this way.  Among them was the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, better known as the Knights Templar, and whose end came shortly after the end of the crusades, and the Order of Christ, founded in 1318 in Portugal to take over the properties and duties of the Templars since they still weren’t done crusading in that corner of Europe.  Other than that, nothing*.  When the reformers came along, they tended to take the whole christian thing as granted, and most of their churches were named after unique beliefs.  But, many of the protestant church buildings began to carry Christ’s name.  ‘Christ’s Church’ of this or that town popped up in many locations.

It after all of this that the Church of Christ was begun in 1830 by Joseph Smith’s small band of followers.  For a short time it was called the Church of Latter Day Saints, before it’s complete name was recorded by revelation in 1838, now a part of the Doctrine and Covenants.  And ever since, that has been the official name, with little variation.  Many organizations have used Christ’s name before and since, but that does not lessen it’s significance to us.

*Well, let’s just pretend “Christians” doesn’t count.  Or I wrote this whole post  for nothing.

*on Wikipedia and google, and consequently I assume it does not exist.  There’s a few orders named after the baby Jesus, but I’m not counting those for this discussion.

A Testimony of Correlation

Well, I was 300 words into this entry when I realized it wasn’t going anywhere.  The thing correlation is usually noted for here on the bloggernacle is leaving out large chunks of church history.  Growing up in Utah, I first noticed this serving my mission in a foreign country, and found that aside from a copy of the countries dedicatory prayer and a few quotes from general authorities that I received in the mission home, there was very little on the local church history.  Sure, it was possible to piece things together talking to members, but that wasn’t very reliable before the time they had joined the church, and nothing in the church magazines offered any depth.  It was unfortunate, since the members I talked with had wonderful, faith promoting stories about how they had found the gospel, and none of it was recorded other than by word of mouth.

Writing this up, I realized that much of the early pioneer history – polygamy and the united order for example – has been placed into that same category of “local” church history that is not officially taught, and no one is expected to know, which is why it comes as such a shock to some who learn about it.  It’s late, so instead of offering commentary on what that means I’ll move onto point two: the part of correlation that everyone does talk about.  It seems like any lesson that brings up correlation is not complete without a travelogue-imony from someone who was recently in China/Russia/Wyoming and how amazing it was that they  had the same lessons at church there as at their home ward.   Now, ignoring the fact that any time I go to a different ward I somehow get the same lesson two weeks in a row, if this is the best result of correlation, no wonder no one is very enthusiastic about it.

Reading over its entry in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism there’s all sorts of things correlation was involved in, admittedly all about on par with synchronizing Sunday school lessons as far as interest level goes.  Out of all the lessons on continuing revelation, this is the least relevant to most people.  A lesson on how the lessons were created… Well, that’s my thoughts for today, I’d be glad to hear what you think about how correlation is taught.

the strait and narrow path

This blog post has been a long time coming, a really long time.  It was three or four years ago on the mission that a member turned to me a said “hey, doesn’t strait mean narrow?”  Woah, I hadn’t even realized there was a missing gh there, making it the “narrow and narrow path” rather than the “straight and narrow.”  So it was this morning during sunday school that I finally sat down to figure it out. (well, I started yesterday really, and some of this afternoon to write it up.  Anyhow, first thought is that it’s a reference to the strait and narrow, which itself is a reference to “straight is the gate and narrow the way” from Matthew.  (Why would Nephi have known this?  I don’t know)  But, in the context of 1 Nephi, it’s clearly not a reference to any other saying.  It’s the path that is strait and narrow, and nothing more.

Turning to the dictionary, it shows that strait (as an adjective) means “affording little room (of spaces)”, “limiting or difficult (of circumstances)” or “severe strict or scrupulous.”  Huh, not all that helpful.  Webster’s 1828 dictionary provides a little more information.  A century and a half ago it could mean:

1. Narrow; close; not broad.

2. Close; intimate; as a strait degree of favor.

3. Strict; rigorous.

4. Difficult; distressful.

5. Straight; not crooked.

Getting rid of all the synonyms for narrow leaves us with a strict, rigorous, difficult, stressful or straight path.  And look at that, I just spent a whole blog post showing that the “strait and narrow path” is a “straight and narrow path.”  The other options seem more interesting though.  Glancing over some of the sermons from apostles and others in the last half of the 19th century, it appears that strait is almost always used in the difficult and distressful sense.   Looking over general usage, it is also apparent that almost no one uses strait as an adjective.  Here’s a small sampling of how it is  was used:

They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and can not take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly strait path.

At the first meeting six were present. They organized a class, and their numbers gradually increased till the place was too strait for them.

Onward they marched, still onward, tracking the windings of that narrow road, through the deep matted swamp, over the rocky ledge, among the giants of the forest! still walled at every point by masses of luxuriant verdure, so dense as to make twilight of the scorching noonday, still so defined that a blind man might have groped out his way unerring, and still so strait that it was utterly impossible for two to go abreast.

I know that imagination was not given us in vain, to be derided by the half-starved, calculating, frozen thinkers, who are too economical of intellect to spare one needless thought; too strait and puritanical in their rhetorick to admit illustration, if it come in ornament and magnificence.

Interestingly, it is used frequently to mean restricted or narrow.  Of my three (completely unrepresentative) examples, only one connotes a dangerous or difficult path.  What is missing is any meaning close to straight.  Okay, so it’s rather discomfiting that this scripture could mean there’s a restricted, confined, and difficult path to happiness.  Wait a second, that’s what life is.  This meaning of it is making more and more sense the longer I think about it.  God is willing to help us, and provides direction, especially when the way forward is not clear.  (Speaking of which, if the path was straight, well, never mind.  There’s no need to go making fun of those who got lost.  On a direct path.   With a handrail.)   Anyhow, I think that’s enough musing over a word, but it’s interesting to see how the meaning of this phrase can change drastically depending on how strait is interpreted, and how the older meaning fits in better with the overall story around it.

Rulers and magistrates

Every primary kid knows the Articles of Faith, most have them memorized (for at least a few minutes).  So, in sunday school today we were going over the Doctrine and Covenants, and discussed the 12th article of faith, I was surprised to have something stand out to me.

We believe in being subject to kings presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying honoring, and sustaining the law.

Now, I’ve never considered all that deeply what this means, clearly we don’t have kings here in the US of A, so the presidents part must be for us.  And rulers and magistrates?  Sounds like an old-fashioned term for judges, but something stuck out to me today, so I took a break from the Sunday school discussion to look it up in Webster’s Dictionary, from 1828, and see what meaning these words would probably have held when the Articles of Faith were originally written.

   Ruler

1. One that governs, whether emperor, king, pope or governor; any one that exercises supreme power over others.

2. One that makes or executes laws in a limited or free government. Thus legislators and magistrates are called rulers.

Magistrate

A public civil officer, invested with the executive government of some branch of it. In this sense, a king is the highest or first magistrate, as is the President of the United States. But the word is more particularly applied to subordinate officers, as governors, intendants, prefects, mayors, justices of the peace, and the like.
The magistrate must have his reverence; the laws their authority.

Our History in the Scriptures

I prefer factual history, but occasionally I enjoy a good alternate history.  What could have been, if things had just gone down a little differently.  What if Laban had been a nice guy, and given Nephi the plates when asked, or at least a not-completely-terrible person and traded them for all of their wealth?  What if Alma the younger hadn’t needed an angel to straighten him out of his rebellious phase?  Or Ammon had been able to convert the Lamanites without disarming their enemies?  What if Alma and Amuleque had been able to wield the power of God, and miraculously save the believers in the city of Ammonihah?  It’s chilling to think how different Nephite history would have been without these incidents; fairer, juster, more peaceful, more like Zion.  And yet, Mormon felt, in his prophetic wisdom, that each of these incidents should be included in his record.

Mormon did not write his book to explain history to his children, or justify the Nephite cause; he wrote it for us.  He wrote it for our day.  He was completely free to eliminate every bit of history that was ugly, senseless, unjust, or just plain not how God’s people should act.  He didn’t.  He had nearly a thousand years of Nephite history to sort through, and he chose many parts that are ugly, violent, and tragic.  Moroni had nearly twice that in the Jaredite records, and his summary of their wars makes the Nephite history look like a child’s game.  There were three hundred years of peace, prosperity, and prophetic guidance after the coming of Christ, and Mormon dedicated a mere few chapters to it.

Joseph smith wasn’t allowed to translate the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, and never stated what the lost 116 pages held, and perhaps the more pleasant parts of Nephite history were recorded there, awaiting the time that we are prepared for them.  But in the meanwhile, this is the word of God, as we were meant to have it.

Likewise, there were many miracles and outpourings of the spirit, visions and prophecies, and while many made it into the doctrine and covenants, many did not.  In their place were included rebukes, miscellaneous instructions, and records of many failures.  That too is as it’s meant to be; we could have a record of the times that Zion was successfully established, but, as in the Book of Mormon these accounts are scarce, instead we have the records of the struggles, weaknesses, shortcomings and, at times, the successes of the early church members.  There are no Enochs among these stories; Lots of Lamans and Lemuels, Alma the youngers, and thankfully few Ammons.  There is as much to be learned of Christ and the workings of God in these less dignified stories as there is in the more typical spiritual lessons.

Misinterpreting the Scriptures; Abrahamic Sacrifice

The idea of an Abrahamic sacrifice is a deep and powerful one.  And yet, by its very nature it is frequently misunderstood.  It’s almost a trick question, God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, then providing a suitable replacement for the sacrifice at the last possible moment, and I’m afraid that’s the lesson most people take from it, that if they can somehow be willing enough to make a sacrifice they won’t have to.

In the gospels, a wealthy young man comes to the Savior.  He states that he has kept the commandments his entire life, then asks what more he needs to do to be saved.  The Savior’s reply was simple, ” Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.”  It’s a powerful answer, and is followed by an important lesson: without God’s help, we cannot be saved.  This sentiment was quickly ruined by the person telling the story pointing out that perhaps, if he’d expressed his willingness to follow this commandment he would have been allowed to keep his wealth.  Wait?  What?  Just kidding.

“The sacrifice of Abraham in the offering up of Isaac, shows that if a man would attain to the keys of the kingdom of an endless life; he must sacrifice all things,” Joseph Smith taught. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith) As all things are present before God, we may not have a record of Abraham’s sacrifice in our scriptures, but in heaven his sacrifice was recorded.  (and you can bet knowing your dad was perfectly willing to kill you certainly changes any father/son relationship.)  So, when talking about sacrifice, let’s not cheapen it to this “if I just pretend to obey I’ll be fine.”  The sacrifices along the way are very real, but the Kingdom of God will be worth it.

Edit: This is a confusing story, because on the other hand there is something to be said for the Lord putting us through trials until we learn a needed lesson.  Problem is, we can’t know that lesson or what we need to learn during said trial or we would not learn it.  So, what I want to get at here is expect trials.  Do not expect them to be easy, do not expect them to just go away, but do expect something better when the time is right.

Misinterpreting the scriptures, part 1

It’s time for another blog post, and I have only have 20 or so minutes to write it, so here’s my thoughts on a few common misconceptions.  We Latter Day Saints love symbolism and metaphors, but sometimes we aren’t sure of the difference between a metaphor, a parable a symbol or a type or any of the other words we love to use to spiritualize ordinary things.  So, up for debate today is one of my favorite metaphors, found in the words of Christ in Matthew 11:28-30,

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Now, I’ve heard this compared to a yoke of oxen, quite logically, if one ox tries to drag a yoke, it will fail, by design, without it’s partner the load will be very difficult for it to pull, not to mention put things terribly out of kilter, with only half the oxen.  Likewise, in our lives if, we’ll just let Christ come beside us he will be able to help us with our loads in life.  This makes sense in light of the pioneers driving their wagons across the plains with yokes of oxen, but this scripture predates that culture by a thousand years or so.  (Full Disclaimer, it’s a very nice metaphor, and I’m just fine if that’s what you want to believe, heck, I’m not even saying you do think of it this way, this is really just me recalling the few times I’ve heard it explained that way a long time ago in seminary, and perhaps in sunday school.)

The other type of yoke, the far-less-metaphorical kind that people use, simply goes over the shoulders of one person, to carry water or, well, I’m not really sure what else.  Now, continuing, this seems to be the meaning in these verses.  Christ isn’t saying he will give us rest by sharing our load; fact is, as much as you care about your load Christ probably doesn’t.  All that pride, sin, (insert sunday school answers here), well, it’s not something he wants us to hold onto, and so he invites us to give it up.  Now, don’t get me wrong here, He cares deeply about us, and by extension about our cares and worries, but he wants us to trust in His gospel., and set aside our worldly preoccupations , for His yoke is easy, and burden is light.  Now that’s a message I can stand beside.