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
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!”