Friday, January 25, 2013

Patriarchs: Psychic Supremacists

Recently I spent a few hours in the Florida village of Cassadaga, which is home to a psychic center with dozens of mediums, spirit stores and even a new age chapel.  The businesses all had that slightly dilapidated, old America homey feel to them.  The hotel, shops and medium stations were grouped together along a few crowded streets in an otherwise remote Florida region.  In addition to the hundreds of books, tarot cards and potions, the curio shops had a lot of seer and divination stones of various types. 
Mediums and spiritualist kept session schedules on white boards and were booked solid during the weekend.  They believe they have a gift, a power and a spiritual skill that enables them to perform the service that others, apparently, cannot. At $60-$100 per hour rates, they were carving out a living in a very affordable village.  One thing stood out in my mind, it didn’t matter who you were or what you did--rich or poor, black or white, tall or short, skeptic or believer--you (and your credit card) are welcome in Cassadaga. 

By comparison, in the LDS church, the Patriarch is a role filled in almost all stakes (units of many congregational wards), where a male priesthood holder is called, usually for life, to pronounce blessings which look suspiciously like psychic foretelling and readings, but with a very Mormon feel to them.  For example, mine (received when I was 19) begins with the following:
“Brother David Twede, in the name of Jesus Christ and by authority of the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood in me vested, I lay my hands upon your head and seal upon you a patriarchal blessing. I pray that the Spirit of the Lord will guide and direct you in those things that you should do, that you may receive an understanding of those questions that are in your mind, that you will be blessed and guided as you travel through life by the precepts of this blessing.”
Here we see a similar claim of gift, power and skill to pronounce guidance that will answer questions needed to travel through life.  It’s really a lot like a psychic reading, minus the cards, stones and credit card charges (there was a fee at one time -- note 1 at end). After telling me that I am special, that I was a good little spirit boy before coming to earth, further on, my blessing makes predictions such as:
  •  “It will be your opportunity to serve a mission”
  •  “You will go to a very special mission”
  •  “You will come to love your mission president with a deep and abiding reverence”
  •  “You will be a leader among men “
  •  “There is a young lady who the Lord is preparing now for this great experience with you”
  •  “The work you do to make your living will be of great pleasure to you”
  •  “Your name will be known for good throughout the annals of the church”
  •  “Your life will be one of direction, achieving goals and great understanding”
Basically, promising me fame, love and even happiness in pursuing my fortune. Repeatedly I am told I am special, loved, have purpose and will achieve great things, have deep relationships and find meaning as well as a (implied wealthy) career.  Throughout my young life, I read and reread the blessing, parsing every nuanced word and sentence to tease out meaning about what would befall me in life.   I remember being told by the Patriarch that I should be careful not to share my blessing except with those I trust.  Like many things in the LDS church, it was sacred, not secret.  But why?

You can view the P. blessings of many former members who've decided to put them up for public viewing at this link.

Most members who receive the blessing are cleared for worthiness by their bishop and instructed to go fasting and prayerful to the Patriarch’s home in preparation for their blessing.  A skeptic or unworthy person would not be welcome to receive it.  That in and of itself may not be such a big deal, except, one element found in every blessing is insidious:  the declaration of Abrahamic lineage. 

The most official LDS definition ( ) I could find on this says:
“A patriarchal blessing includes a declaration of lineage, stating that the person is of the house of Israel—a descendant of Abraham, belonging to a specific tribe of Jacob. Many Latter-day Saints are of the tribe of Ephraim, the tribe given the primary responsibility to lead the latter-day work of the Lord.
“Because each of us has many bloodlines running in us, two members of the same family may be declared as being of different tribes in Israel.
“It does not matter if a person's lineage in the house of Israel is through bloodlines or by adoption. Church members are counted as a descendant of Abraham and an heir to all the promises and blessings contained in the Abrahamic covenant.”

  My own blessing says:
“I bless you to know that you are of the house of Joseph through the loins of Ephraim…”
Why would I say this is insidious? Because it is racism at some level.  All of Abraham’s descendents, as described in the bible story, are white Middle Eastern tribal people.  LDS church doctrine declares that:
“For whoso is faithful unto the obtaining these two priesthoods of which I have spoken, and the magnifying their calling, are sanctified by the Spirit unto the renewing of their bodies. They become the sons of Moses and of Aaron and the seed of Abraham, and the church and kingdom, and the elect of God.” (D&C 84:33-34)
According to LDS doctrine, if you are not directly part of or adopted into the lineage of Abraham, you cannot fulfill the requirements of salvation and exaltation.  When one gets a patriarchal blessing, the declaration of lineage is always made to that race.  Implied strongly in this is that Asians, Blacks, Indians, Amerindians, and others are not chosen.  They must at some level (blood or spiritual) declare and align themselves with the race of a Bedouin tribe or else be damned.

While I found my curious visit to Cassadaga entertaining, it wasn’t any more insidious than visiting a used car sales lot.  At least the psychics don’t universally all spout a racist declaration when giving you a reading.  Patriarchs, while mostly humble, good intentioned men, are serving a supremacist cause at the LDS church’s bidding.

The Coral Castle in Homestead, FL is believed to have been erected by magic.

Many who've recevied a P. blessing have said that they feel it was revelatory.  There were personal things said during the blessing that know one else could've known.  There were experiences in life fulfilled that seemed dead-on predicted by the blessing years before.  You would get the same kind of testimony from customers of psychics at Casadagga.  They will marvel and believe it is magical. 

The techniques used by psychics has been studied by many skeptics. A great summary is found here.  Listed in this are the following standard techiques (in Guide to Cold Reading).
  1. You must act with confidence. You don't need to be arrogant. In fact, you will probably benefit by pretending to be humble. ...
  2. You must do your research. You have to be up on the latest statistics... You have to know what people in general are like from polls and surveys. Also, you must pick up in casual conversation before a performance any information that might be useful later...
  3. You must convince the mark that he or she will be the reason for success or failure. ...
  4. Be observant. Does the person have expensive jewelry on but worn out clothes? Is she wearing a pin with the letter 'K' on it. ...
  5. Use flattery and pretend you know more than you do.
And so on.  Some argue that a difference is, the patriarch is pronouncing a blessing while the psychic plays 20-questions and guides the mark to where the personal information lies.  Most patriarchs will interview and converse with the blessee before the pronouncement.  Patriarchs are given general guidelines in a short manual (which is guarded closely much like the Mission President's Handbook was).  They become practiced in expanding on the guidelines as they pronounce more and more blessings, and have already gained much experience as a priesthood holder giving healing blessings, ordinances, father's blessings and more for decades.  The tradecraft follows closely to the steps outlined above. 
  1. The patriarch does hold the authority and yet they are humble.
  2. The pre-blessing dialogue and interview helps the patriarch to pronounce personalized blessings.
  3. The fulfillment of a blessings is always predicated on worthiness. This is an out for anything not fulfilled and leaves the mark feeling insecure about their standing in the church, and thus reliant on it.
  4. Most patriarchs have personal knowledge of the blessee and his/her family, who lives in the same stake as the patriarch.  Mormon communities are close-knit.
  5. Loads of flattery and very little negative content exist in P. blessings.
I'm willing to bet that if patriarchs could go back to charging for the blessing, as they could in the 19th and early 20th centuries (see note 1), most members would go back time and time again for updates.  Instead, the church ensures one pays tithing to be worthy for the blessing, and teaches that future promises are predicated on continued worthiness (e.g., paying tithing).

Appearing to accurately predicting events that seem too unqiue to be just coincidence is actually not that difficult when viewed in hindsight.  Take a look at this page to see how a high number of nearly identical coincidences between US Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy make it appear they were both destined to be assassinated.

This article from the NY Times highlights more importance of statistical significance and mere coincidence.

Lastly, it was pointed out to me that the Forer Effect could be at play in P. blessings.  The effect "is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, graphology, and some types of personality tests."

Just because it feels meaningful doesn't mean it isn't common.

[1] From  D. Michael Quinn, "The Mormon Hierarchy--Extensions of Power" Chap 6, Signature Books, 1997.
"For several decades only the Patriarch had a set compensation, while other General Authorities depended on haphazard donations from the rank-and-file or ad hoc appropriations from general Church funds. In 1835 the Presiding Patriarch was authorized a salary of $10 a week, plus expenses.
"Both the Presiding Patriarch and local stake patriarchs charged a fee. In the 1840s the fee was $1 per patriarchal blessing at Nauvoo; by the end of the nineteenth century it had increased to $2 per blessing. Joseph Smith, Sr., gave patriarchal blessings without payment of a fee, but would not record them. 'Uncle' John Smith commented that he 'lived very poor ever since we left Kirtland Ohio' in January 1838 until January 1844. Then his nephew Joseph Smith ordained him a patriarch 'through which office I obtained a comfortable living.'
"Financial incentive is another explanation for the fact that individual Mormons received more than one patriarchal blessing in the 19th century, often at the invitation of the patriarch. In October 1877 John Taylor criticized the monetary motivation of some stake patriarchs. He said they were using their patriarchal office as 'a mere means of obtaining a livelihood, and to obtain more business they had been traveling from door to door and underbidding each other in the price of blessings.'
"In addition, patriarchs received fees for giving unrecorded blessings of healing to the sick. In fact, Apostle Francis M. Lyman commended Patriarch Elias Blackburn for 'doing a great deal of good among the sick, without receiving very much pay for his services.'
"Patriarchal blessing fees ended in 1902, although patriarchs were allowed to accept unsolicited donations. Not until 1943 did church authorities prohibit patriarchs from accepting gratuities for giving blessings."


  1. Never occurred to me that lineage declaration could be anything but benign, but like many other aspects of mormonism, things have meaning and significance when looked at with different eyes.

  2. This might be my favorite MD post

  3. I remember seminary teachers telling stories in hushed but knowing tones of people they knew who had been promised that the second coming would occur during their lifetimes, or that they would see Christ in the flesh, or whatever. Of course most of those people have now died waiting in vain for this foretold event. Seems like patriarchs should take a tip from the fortune tellers, keep it simple and dont go too far out on a limb.

  4. My husband's parents used his P blessing as evidence the church is true. It states that he will increase his learning in the sciences (he's now a doctor). My husband just laughed. The patriarch interviewed him before the blessing and my husband told him he wanted to go to medical school.

    Mine said I would teach many of the same lessons I've learned from my parents to my own children. I remember thinking doesn't god know my parents are alcoholics?

  5. This post made me really mad. Mad can be good sometimes. It made me realize how much power that patriarch had over my life. Some of the things he said really influenced the paths I chose. Lines like, "Learn your homemaking skills well.." and more about why I needed to do that partially caused me to quit worrying about my own educational pursuits and just become a good homemaker. (Of course, it's more complicated than that. It always is.) I really like my life now, but there were times when I just hated it. I've had to learn to like what I hated and while that isn't always bad, I had completely lost who I really was for a while and it just sucks that it was partially because I allowed a magician's comments a lot of weight in my mind.

    Ok, I'll get over it!

  6. I don't think I would go so far as to say racist, but they are hardly revelatory in my experience. Mine basically said work hard, study hard, don't re-invent the wheel, be good to my family. Frankly, that was probably better than making a profound promise, but thru my very Mormon glasses at the time (I was twenty) it was disappointing. It was like sitting down next to an old man on a bus who leans over and starts to give great-grandfatherly advice.